x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

UN treaty is first step toward curbing arms trade

Arms Trade Treaty will place curbs on sales to prevent the illegal proliferation of weapons such as occurred after the revolution in Libya.

A photo released by the French army shows weapons and ammunition seized in northern Mali. AP Photo
A photo released by the French army shows weapons and ammunition seized in northern Mali. AP Photo

Amid growing concerns about the proliferation of weapons in the Arab world, a landmark United Nations' treaty designed to control the international flow of arms was signed by the first nations to officially adopt it yesterday.

Hailed as a triumph after 10 years of campaigning by activists, the Arms Trade Treaty would prohibit the sale of weapons - from pistols to helicopters - to countries under international embargo. The treaty also prohibits sales where there is suspicion the arms could be illegally trafficked or used in genocide or crimes against humanity. The text of the treaty was approved by a large majority at the UN General Assembly in April.

Experts in international arms flow cautiously welcomed the treaty, saying that while it was no silver bullet guaranteeing that the annual international conventional arms trade - estimated by Amnesty International to be worth more than Dh256.9 billion - would become more responsible, it was a step in the right direction. The treaty will take effect once 50 countries ratify it.

Although most nations, both suppliers and stockpilers of weapons, have not yet signed the treaty, activists hope that the required number will, in coming months, go through the legal processes within their governments and sign.

Libya is among those troubled nations and the weapons amassed under the rule of Muammar Qaddafi have flooded into its unstable neighbours.

Advocates of the treaty say that it is designed to prevent similar situations from happening in future. Huge numbers of weapons were exported to Libya under Qaddafi in the past decade, after he announced that he had abandoned nuclear and biological-weapons programmes. French, Russian and British companies were among the biggest exporters.

When an internationally backed rebellion felled the autocrat in 2011, many of the weapons were smuggled across the country's poorly controlled borders, where they have been used in the conflict in northern Mali, among other places.

"Certainly there are several weapons caches, thousands, in fact, of weapons caches, and I can assure you that not all of the weapons have stayed behind," said Lt Gen Charles Bouchard, commander of Nato operations in Libya at the time, in September 2011.

"It will behove the international community to continue their work to prevent proliferation of weapons, of conventional weapons," he said.

It will take time for the effects of the treaty to be felt, said Paul Holtom, a senior researcher with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Countries like Libya were buying weapons decades ago, and existing stockpiles have a long shelf life. He also said that, for irresponsible transfers of weapons to end, "states would have to behave well and consistently, and states don't always behave well and consistently".

Russia and China, which both have significant arms industries, abstained from approving the text in April.

Mr Holtom, however, said that an international mechanism calling for more transparency and accurate reporting of weapons sales could encourage governments at least to think twice before authorising the supply of weapons to countries where control of arms is difficult. This would include Syria, he said, where weapons have been pouring into the country, facilitated by private individuals and governments supportive of the government of Bashar Al Assad and the disparate rebel groups.

"Once supplied, it's very difficult to get control over them again," Mr Holtom said. "We see them circulating, they find conflicts, they don't stop at borders."

He cited the example of Afghanistan, where American authorities were forced to buy back surface-to-air missiles supplied to their Afghan allies at the end of the 1980s, fearing that they would be smuggled out of the country.

"With Syria, I would hope that under the Arms Trade Treaty the transfers to Syria would not be considered responsible," he said. "It is going to have an impact on borders and regional issues."

Syria shares borders with Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, which is undergoing its worst bout of violence since 2007.

"The treaty is not about taking states to court, but it's creating a mechanism by which international pressure can be applied," said Roy Isbister, of the Safeworld NGO. "States do choose to break international law. When they feel their interests are threatened they make a calculated decision.

"But if the treaty is there, it creates more problems for states.

"You are not going to see arms transfers disappear, but it should shrink the number."

afordham@thenational.ae