Virtually all major commodities traded internationally—from bananas to oil to iPods—are regulated with strong and binding international agreements. Virtually all—but until recently, no treaty or internationally agreed-upon standards regulated the international trade of arms, worth an estimated $70 billion each year.
In 2006, the UN world conference on small arms collapsed as the United States pulled out of the negotiations after blocking key components of an agreement, including restricting transfers to non-state actors, imposing controls on small arms ammunitions and regulating civilian arms possession. In July 2012, the UN returned to the issue, but participating countries again failed to come to agreement. The Final UN Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which convened in March, was likely to be the last chance for countries to reach an agreement to regulate the international trade in small arms and conventional weapons. And agree they did, albeit in a roundabout way, adopting the first-ever multilateral ATT. But what did it take, and will it work?
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The proliferation of small arms fuels conflicts and results in hundreds of thousands of deaths and instances of sexual violence each year. Weapons are often misused by government forces and traded into illegal markets, and according to Amnesty International, 1,500 people die in armed conflicts every day—one person every minute—due to the reckless trade of arms. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called small arms the “real weapons of mass destruction.”
The idea of a treaty regulating the arms trade first emerged in the 1990s from a group of Nobel Peace Laureates, including Mikhail Gorbachev, and Amnesty International, and was led by former President of Costa Rica Óscar Arias. In 2003, the Control Arms Campaign, a worldwide network that includes non-governmental organizations, such as Amnesty International, Oxfam and Saferworld, and individuals, was launched. In 2006, the coalition delivered the “Million Faces” petition—the world’s largest photo petition, signed by one million people in support of arms control from over 160 countries—to Kofi Annan.
But many countries on the UN Security Council had vested interests in preventing the adoption of such a treaty. Along with Germany, the five permanent members of the Security Council, known as the P5—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the US—are the leading exporting countries for small arms, and the United States is the world’s largest arms manufacturer. According to Amnesty international, these countries—the “Big Six”—supply about three-quarters of the value of the world’s weapons. France transfers technology, mostly vehicles, to Sudan; Russia supplies the Syrian government with weapons; the United States sells ammunitions to Yemen; Chinese weapons have been found in countries under arms embargoes, such as the DRC and Darfur; British brass plate companies have supplied South Sudan with tanks, artillery and assault rifles. A report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute for 2010 shows that of the top ten largest weapons manufacturing companies, seven are American. Those companies, along with a British company’s American subsidiary, provide jobs for approximately 890,120 people.