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Optimism Ahead of UN Arms Trade Conference

  • Henry Ridgwell

As the Syrian uprising marks its two-year anniversary, the U.N. estimates fighting between government and rebel forces has taken 70,000 lives.

The anniversary comes as diplomats head to the United Nations in New York for the Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty. The conference, which gets underway Monday, has campaigners optimistic that a deal can be reached to control an industry worth an estimated $80 billion a year.

But with universal consensus required to pass any agreement, any one country could derail a treaty.

“Amnesty International has been saying for at least a couple of years now that those arms have to be stopped, there needs to be a total embargo on Syria," said Brian Wood, head of arms control at Amnesty International. "Certainly if you had an arms trade treaty that was well formulated, this tragic situation could have been mitigated.”

Wood says the Syrian conflict is just one example of the huge global impact of the arms trade.

“Since the Second World War we’ve had almost 400 armed conflicts," he said. "That’s a lot. And that doesn’t even count the number of people dying in gang violence, in state repression, all the people who are injured or otherwise abused.”

The last U.N. Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty in July 2012 ended without agreement. But this time around there is optimism that the U.N. Security Council's five permanent members will agree on a text.

But Woods says reaching consensus across the conference will be a challenge.

“If, for example, North Korea says ‘No we don’t want this,’ then it cannot be adopted by consensus," said Wood. "It has to be taken back to the General Assembly."

But according to Kaye Stearman of the London-based Campaign Against Arms Trade, even among those in favor of controlling the arms trade, there is not universal agreement.

“The Arms Trade Treaty is not going to stop that," said Stearman. "The arms trade is dominated by a few very large countries — USA, Britain, Russia, China, France, Germany — and none of those countries are doing anything to stop their own participation in the arms trade.”

Stearman says many countries backing the treaty are selling arms to governments with poor human rights records.

“Look at Saudi Arabia," she said. "It’s definitely a human rights abuser in more ways than one: it’s undemocratic; it’s abusive; it restricts the rights of women and children; it practices public beheadings, and yet the UK still manages to sell arms to Saudi Arabia. In fact it’s the largest customer for U.K. arms.”

The British Foreign Office, which declined an interview, gave a statement saying “the UK government takes its export licensing responsibilities seriously and operates one of the most rigorous arms export control regimes in the world. ... We pay particular attention to allegations of human rights abuses.”

The arms trade is worth billions of dollars and observers say imposing controls will require a landmark global agreement.