x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

A disarming proposition

Why do people who sell weapons face less regulation than those who trade in fruit and vegetables? Agricultural products are subject to three international agreements, while transfers of conventional weapons are not governed by any binding global treaty.

As strange as it may seem, people in the business of selling weapons do so with far less regulation and oversight than their counterparts in the banana trade.

Agricultural products are subject to three international agreements, while transfers of conventional weapons, including attack helicopters, tanks, armoured vehicles, combat aircraft, artillery systems, missile launchers, light weapons and small arms - as well as the munitions needed to make them lethal - are not governed by any binding global treaty. And according to Amnesty International, one person dies every minute worldwide due to the resulting violence.

While all responsible governments regulate the trade in arms at the national level, the failure to establish a global apparatus for overseeing this Dh257 billion business means vast quantities of these weapons freely flow into conflict zones, where they are used by perpetrators of war crimes, torture and other serious human rights abuses, most notably in Bashar Al Assad's Syria.

Previous efforts to stem the flow of arms into such countries have failed to gain traction, but on March 18, UN delegates will gather in New York to resume talks that began - but faltered - last July to negotiate what campaigners hope will be a legally binding Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the first of what will likely be many, many steps needed to effectively tackle the complex and pervasive problem of non-legitimate arms acquisition. The aim of the agreement is to establish standards for all cross-border transactions, legally requiring governments to review contracts to ensure that arms will not be used by human rights abusers, do not violate embargoes and are not illegally diverted.

However, there are serious obstacles to successfully negotiating the ATT, the biggest one being that support for the treaty must be unanimous.

Support from the US, by far the world's biggest exporter of conventional arms (40 per cent of the global total), is particularly crucial.

While the White House is in favour of the treaty in principle, providing that ammunition is exempted, it faces strong opposition from the powerful US gun lobby, which is against any regulatory progress in this area on the grounds that it could potentially infringe on the constitutionally protected right to bear arms. Although the American Bar Association insists there is no legal risk of this occurring because the treaty would apply only to international transfers, continuing pressure from gun groups could make a "yes" vote difficult to ratify in the US Senate.

In the event that delegates do reach a consensus and the "robust and comprehensive agreement that addresses the humanitarian impact of the poorly regulated trade in arms" called for by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is ratified by member states, major challenges, such as monitoring and enforcement, will remain.

How effective such a treaty will be in the short to medium term remains to be seen.

However, with sustained international support, it could at the very least provide a regulatory framework to build on, a nudge towards a more peaceful world in which the trade in weapons is as carefully monitored as that of tropical fruit.