Why the World Needs an Arms Treaty

Monday, July 9, 2012
Bernd Debusmann for Reuters
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security

In the past two decades, experts monitoring the international arms trade recorded more than 500 violations of United Nations arms embargoes. Just two have resulted in trials and convictions.

This telling statistic helps explain why diplomats, experts and arms control activists are in New York this month at a U.N.-hosted conference aimed at working out a treaty to regulate a vast market that so far has fewer rules than the trade in bananas. Where high reward-low risk activities are concerned, few can match the international arms trade, licit or illicit.

The contrast between the number of embargo violations and the number of arms dealers held to account comes from a study, to be published later this year, conducted by a team led by James Stewart, a law professor at Canada's University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Stewart looked into cases, dating back to 1990, that prompted U.N. panels of experts to report violations of embargoes imposed by the U.N. Security Council.

“Despite extensive searches, we couldn't find more than two convictions,” said Stewart, who worked as a prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia before joining academia. What were the two cases that broke the pattern of impunity for embargo busters?

In 2007, a court in The Hague sentenced Dutch businessman Frans Van Anraat to 17 years in jail for selling raw materials for the production of mustard gas to the government of Saddam Hussein. Last January, Chile's Supreme Court convicted two retired generals and seven others of illegally exporting weapons to Croatia in 1991. The case reached the country's highest court after a long march through the military justice system.

What is notable about the conviction is that the United Nations arms embargo then in place for Yugoslavia played no role in the court's decision. It found that the accused broke local laws. Violating a U.N. arms embargo is not a crime in Chile, nor is it in many other countries. To date, only 52 governments have laws regulating arms brokers, according to Oxfam, one of the non-governmental organizations pushing for an arms trade treaty with teeth. Fewer than half those 52 governments have criminal or monetary penalties for illegal arms deals.

Some pro-treaty campaigners see the case of Viktor Bout, the Russian arms dealer dubbed “Merchant of Death”, as Exhibit A for the urgent need for global regulations. Bout, who served as the inspiration for the 2006 Hollywood movie Lord of War, was sentenced to 25 years in prison by a New York court in April. But that sentence was not for having supplied arms to assorted armed groups and dictatorial regimes in Africa's deadliest conflict zones in the 1990s, as U.N. watchdogs alleged at the time.

Instead, Bout was convicted of conspiracy and terrorism charges stemming from sting operation in which agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) posed as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a guerrilla group that is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. Bout agreed to sell them millions of dollars worth of weapons, a punishable act of “providing material support to a terrorist organization.”


Though Bout's career has come to an end, there are “literally hundreds” of others out there who flourish by shipping weapons to governments and guerilla groups that violate human rights, according to Andrew Feinstein, author of The Shadow World, Inside the Global Arms Trade, a book that delves deeply into the often overlapping worlds of government-to-government arms deals and the gray and black markets in weapons.

Shady deals that slipped through regulatory loopholes and circumvented embargoes account for a large proportion of the guns used in civil wars from Congo and Angola to Sierra Leone and Sudan. In the Congo alone, the death toll has been estimated in the millions since the early 1990s. If activists pushing for a robust arms treaty are right, more than half a million people, on average, die every year as a result of armed conflict. Civilians top the body count.

When the U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon opened the conference which runs from July 2 to July 27, he termed the absence of a global treaty on the arms trade “a disgrace” and urged delegates to work for a pact with “real impact on the lives of those millions of people suffering from the consequences of armed conflict , repression and armed violence.”

This was an ambitious task, he said, but achievable. Perhaps. We'll know by the end of July whether the vast majority of the 193 nations in the U.N. who have spoken out in favor of a treaty mean what they say.

The obstacles on the way to throttling the flow of unregulated weapons are as formidable as the scope of the proposed treaty – from tanks, aircraft and ships to missiles, submarines, machine guns and assault rifles.

Small arms have accounted for most of the casualties in conflicts in the past four decades yet China, an energetic small arms exporter, wants them excluded from the treaty. Russia, which is shipping weapons to the government of Syria, balks at a clause that would ban arms exports to recipients who might use them to violate human rights or humanitarian law. China, Iran and Egypt share such reservations.

Under President Barack Obama, the United States, the world's biggest arms exporter, supports the treaty in principle, a reversal of policy from the administration of George W. Bush. But the U.S. still has reservations about including ammunition in trade controls.

Anna Macdonald, who heads Oxfam's Arms Control Campaign, has termed the New York conference a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to truly make the world a safer place.”

Missing that opportunity would be a global shame.