Arms Trade Treaty: Let the U.S. Opt Out for Now

The global market and technological advancements have the ability to transform the world with remarkable speed. Not many would be surprised to hear that the computer I am using to write this article may be comprised of components from at least 10 different countries. The monitor may come from Singapore, the processor from Israel, the software designed in India, and all assembled in Tennessee. We are becoming so accustomed to this phenomenon, that we don’t even blink an eye.

While the globalized production of widely available computers may change people’s lives for the better, it is not so with all commodities. In no other industry are the effects of globalization as potentially dangerous as in the global arms trade.

Weapons, and the capability to produce weapons, are proliferating at an alarming rate. According to the Congressional Research Service, the value of all arms transfer agreements worldwide in 2005 was approaching $45 billion, with the sales to the developing world accounting for two thirds of that total.

At the same time, many new countries are joining the arms exporting club. The number of arms companies in the top 100 based in countries not previously considered as major exporters has more than doubled since 1990. These emerging exporters include Israel (with four companies in the top 100), India (three companies), South Korea (three companies), and one each in Brazil, Singapore and South Africa. The proliferation of exporting nations both increases the likelihood of weapons flowing to places banned from receiving weapons from traditional exporters and provides arms smugglers with more locations to obtain illicit weapons. The resulting widespread availability of weapons often serves as a catalyst for violent conflict and contributes to countless violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

Something must be done to control this scourge of globalization. While technology spreads very quickly, the development of international law and norms moves at a glacial pace. After years of discussion, governments are finally beginning to take action on controlling the global arms trade. Thanks to the work of thousands of activists around the world, the idea of an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is gaining momentum in capitals and within the United Nations.

The Need for Global Controls

Though almost all arms-exporting states have at least some guidelines intended to control international arms transfers, many countries continue to give priority to profits in the lucrative weapons market over respect for human rights and human security. A buyer who is barred from purchasing weapons under the law of one country can just go to one of the many other countries who produce weapons and exploit lower export control standards. The clearest example of this is the government of Sudan, which is ineligible to buy weapons from the EU or the United States due to its support of terrorism and dismal human rights record, but can go to Belarus or China and buy as many weapons as it desires. The devastating effects of this and similar practices are felt by millions not only in Darfur, but in countries throughout the world.

In order to close this loop-hole and ensure that controls imposed by one state or region are not undermined by the lax controls of another, national and regional initiatives must be complemented by the development of global standards. Discussion on a possible treaty on arms transfers commenced over 10 years ago when a group of Nobel Laureates, led by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, called for the development of an international code of conduct on arms transfers. After 10 years, the world is beginning to listen. On October 30, 2006, the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to start a process toward an ATT. This landmark vote paves the way for a feasibility report by the Secretary General and the establishment of a Group of Governmental Experts to consider the scope and content of the Treaty. The vote passed by a margin of 139 to 1, with 24 abstentions. Given the Bush administration’s aversion to global treaties of any sort, it is not surprising that the only vote in opposition to the resolution was the United States.

The U.S. and the ATT

In the long-run, an effective global treaty must have the support of all major arms exporters. However, unlike other analysts, I do not bemoan the decision of the Bush administration to oppose the development of an ATT. In the next year or two, important decisions on the substance of a treaty will be made. U.S. participation at this stage could prove disastrous, as the United States is currently proving that it is more concerned with counter-terrorism cooperation than with human rights.

Since September 11, 2001, there have been major increases both in the amount of military aid the U.S. provides and in the number of its recipient countries. Following the attacks, arms exports and other types of military assistance became primary tools for securing the cooperation of other governments with the U.S. counter-terrorism agenda. Countries previously ineligible to receive U.S. weapons due to troubling records, on human rights nonproliferation, and democracy were identified as key allies in the “war on terror.” Thus, the sanctions against arms transfers to countries such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan were immediately lifted, allowing millions of dollars of weapons deals to go forward. The Bush administration is vehemently opposed to international norms limiting U.S. war-fighting capabilities, scorning them as “permission slip[s] to defend the American people.” This being the case, I highly doubt that an arms trade treaty developed with the support of the U.S. would set high humanitarian standards.

U.S. participation is likely to affect not only the substance of a treaty, but also its legitimacy. Given the history of the United States in this area, many countries will look at any treaty process supported by the U.S. as an effort to assert hegemony over the arms trade. Many states, mostly from the global South, feel that the current global arms control efforts discriminate against weaker states. The nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, for example, creates a two-class system where strong states are permitted to maintain nuclear arsenals while the rest of the world must not. Some states wonder whether an arms trade treaty would create another class system, in which strong states can develop and sell weapons to whomever they want, while discriminating against weaker states. With the U.S. opposing the treaty, it is more likely that many countries in the global South will support additional controls.

The development of the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty in the late 1990′s suggests that creating a strong global treaty may be more important than reaching global consensus at its early stages. An effective ATT must include strong prohibitions against selling weapons to places where they are likely to be used to facilitate human rights abuse or violations of international humanitarian law. Since a negotiation and a vote on a treaty will not occur for at least 3 to 4 years, there is plenty of time for diplomatic and grassroots pressure to enable consensus on the treaty at a later date. If civil society can successfully convince policymakers in the U.S. that an Arms Trade Treaty will reduce global violence and instability, the U.S. will be able to join the efforts down the road.

Clearly high hurdles remain. Powerful opponents with fat wallets will continue to oppose enhanced global controls over arms transfers. Underdeveloped countries looking to keep a strategic balance with their neighbors or quell internal opposition will continue to claim a blanket right of self-defense. Yet governments are beginning to listen to the voices of those victims of the unbridled weapons trade. With continued pressure from the millions of people who are fed up with the policy of governments putting profits before human security, an Arms Trade Treaty can be reality.

Scott Stedjan is a Legislative Secretary for the Friends Committee on National Legislation focusing on conflict prevention and conventional weapons. As part of his work with FCNL, he sits on the global Arms Trade Treaty Steering Committee.