09/11/2012 07:38 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2012

Revelations That Iran Is Arming Syria Is One More Example of Why the World Needs an Arms Trade Treaty

By Suzanne Nossel

The Obama administration is understandably concerned after this week's revelations that Iran is arming Syrian troops and is flying through Iraqi airspace to do it. While the slaughter in Syria has claimed well over 16,000 lives, efforts by the United States, the United Nations and other quarters over the past 18 months have failed to either dampen or change President Assad's campaign to crush internal opposition by whatever means necessary -- in contemptuous defiance of international condemnation. The tragic irony is that it was the Obama administration that was the driving force behind torpedoing one potential tool that might have slowed down the arming of the Syrian army: a robust arms trade treaty.

The crisis in Syria is the most stark, current example of how the current laissez-faire global arms trade can exacerbate conflicts. At least 500,000 people are killed each year as a result of war, armed homicides, extra-judicial executions and excessive use of force by state security forces. There are actually more regulations governing the international trade in bananas than in small arms and conventional weapons. This does not even address the rapes, displacements of people, health costs and lost potential development of countries affected by such violence.

In June Amnesty International witnessed firsthand the human impact of such statistics during missions to the Aleppo and Adlib governorates, where reprisals by the Syrian army that included pulling men and boys from their homes, executing them in cold blood only feet from their families, and then setting the bodies on fire as relatives watched.

Of course no one is claiming that an arms trade treaty is a panacea. Any treaty is only as good as its implementation. But consider a possible scenario: if the treaty had been adopted and Iraq had signed it, would the treaty have provided Iraq both an incentive and the moral and political justification to block Iranian supply flights to Syria? The sad truth is that we will never know, because efforts to negotiate the treaty were torpedoed in July, when the United States, Russia and China lowered the boom on negotiations at the 11th hour and demanded more time -- after over 10 years of deliberations.

While such behavior might be expected from the governments of Russia and the China, the actions of the United States government were dumbfounding. Coupled with recent articles that reveal that U.S. dominance of the arms trade market reached an all-time high in 2011 -- with U.S. weapons sales accounting for more than three quarters of the total $85 billion market -- the situation begs the question of whether the United States truly has abdicated efforts at genuine moral leadership for simple profit or worse.

Surely the Syrian people and the other countless victims of the unregulated trade in small arms deserve more from the United States than disjointed, hypocritical arms policies that are at cross-purposes.

We need a strong arms trade treaty and we need it now.

Suzanne Nossel is executive director, Amnesty International USA