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DISARMAMENT: Inching Toward a Global Arms Treaty

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 16 2009 (IPS) - The United Nations concluded an open-ended working group for an international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) Thursday, part of a lengthy and politically contentious process to nail down a basic framework for curbing deadly illegal weapons sales.

“An open-ended working group in the U.N. is where all states can come to a meeting, it’s an open invitation,” Amnesty International spokesperson Brian Wood explained to IPS. “They are trying to get a better idea of what the realistic scope and parameters for this treaty are.”

Firearms kill over 1,000 people every day, and severely injure three times that number. Many more are raped, forced from their homes and threatened by people with guns.

In 2006, U.N. member states voted on a proposal to target illegal and illicit small arms trafficking and create the ATT. One hundred and fifty-three countries voted in favour of the proposal, named Resolution 61/89, while 24 countries abstained with only one – the United States – voting against it.

Abstaining countries included major arms exporters like China and Russia, and major importers like Pakistan and Egypt.

The U.S. is the largest producer, supplier and importer of small arms in the world.

The U.S. also accounts for one in 10 of the gun-related deaths in the world, about 31,000 per year according to a USA Today study, more than half of which are suicides.

The problem in most affected countries, many of which are poor or underdeveloped, are illegally and illicitly procured weapons. Ninety percent of casualties in conflict areas are caused by small arms, according to the Red Cross.

Small arms include pistols, assault rifles, light machine guns, submachine guns, mortars, portable anti-aircraft guns, grenade launchers, anti-tank missiles and rocket systems, hand grenades and anti-personnel landmines.

Control Arms, a coalition group formed by Amnesty International, Oxfam, the International Action Network on Small Arms and hundreds of smaller non-profits, has been working closely with the U.N. to produce a treaty strengthening and enforcing international laws on weapons trade.

The Arms Trade Treaty would set up a risk assessment system to determine the legality of an arms transfer on a case-by-case basis, based on the likelihood the weapons would be used to harm civilians or in some way other than national defense or law enforcement.

The ATT would also function as a legal agreement to enforce laws and treaties that already exist. Many laws are in writing already, but are not enforced, and national laws differ just enough to make cross-border enforcement very difficult, experts say.

“You can only talk about legal transfers of arms when you’ve got a law,” Wood told IPS.

“If the law is not very good, you can say the transfers are legal but it doesn’t really mean much. For example, the arms that went to Rwanda leading up to the genocide and even during the genocide were never designated illegal even though there were acts of genocide.”

“Arguably the people who did the supplying, if they did it knowingly, should be complicit in acts of genocide,” he added.

One of the clearest examples demonstrating the need for such a treaty was the business of the recently arrested Israeli arms dealer, Leonid Minin. Minin relied on legal companies in many countries to illegally ferry arms to conflict zones around the world in such a way that made him immune to prosecution in any one country.

According to Control Arms, one 1999 transaction alone involved using separate shell companies based in Gibraltar and the British Virgin Islands, a bank in Hungary and a plane from England to traffic 68 tonnes of Ukrainian weapons through Burkina Faso to government forces in Sierra Leonne and rebels in Liberia, both accused of egregious human rights abuses.

Despite his machinations, Minin had to use phony end user certificates and these would have been exposed as illegal in any of the countries involved in the scheme if authorities had bothered to check, but under current international law they are not required to do so.

Amnesty cites Minin’s arrest and subsequent release in Italy in 2000 as a prime reason this treaty is needed. Minin was arrested near Milan but could not be prosecuted because Italian authorities did not have jurisdiction over places where actual crimes were committed.

Minin was combined with Russian arms dealer Viktor “Merchant of Death” Bout to form the main character in the 2005 Hollywood movie ‘Lord of War’.

Bout helped states ship arms and other supplies to war zones, notably working for the United States government in Iraq, but was accused of using his connection to cover a massive illegal arms trafficking business. Bout was arrested in Thailand in 2008.

Resolution 61/89 recognises the legitimate right of countries to defend themselves, and the development and manufacture of weapons to that end, but stresses the dangers posed to that same right of defense if those weapons are illegally trafficked to conflict zones.

According to Oxfam, the illicit weapons trade also exasperates poverty.

“The Millennium Development Goals are the basic targets for ensuring our fellow human beings can live decently. Many countries are failing to meet those goals, and the uncontrolled arms trade is one of the reasons why,” said Jeremy Hobbs, head of Oxfam International.

Two-thirds of countries most likely to miss the Millennium Development Goals are involved in current armed conflict or are emerging from a recent conflict.

States are still debating the parameters and scope of the ATT, with major sticking points including the consequences for violators. Control Arms hopes to have these ironed out and present a proposal to the General Assembly in October.

“This is not rocket science,” Wood said. “These systems are by and large in place, the problem is the systems are different in different states, in some places there is a lack of political will to implement them, and some states just don’t have the capacity yet. The big deal is cooperation,” he said.

“If they get into negotiations next year we might have a treaty by 2012 if we’re lucky,” Wood told IPS, stressing that every year it is delayed costs hundreds of thousands of lives.

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