News / Europe

UN Arms Treaty Stalled

What Would the Arms Trade Treaty Do?

  • Create a more level playing field for global arms transfers
  • Require all exporting countries to agree to similar standards
  • Fill a gap in efforts to curb the illegal arms trade
  • Would not ban or prohibit the export of any type of weapon
  • Would not impair states' right to self-defense

Source: UNODA
A United Nations global treaty on conventional arms is on hold after three countries blocked consensus on a final text but it can still be adopted by the U.N. in the very near future.

The proposed legally-binding treaty would set international standards to regulate the import, export and transfer of conventional weapons - from battle tanks, warships and attack helicopters to small arms and light weapons. Major arms exporters such as the United States and Russia - and major importers, such as India, China and Pakistan, participated in the negotiations.

Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association, an independent research firm, said the treaty would represent an important step forward.

Treaty a Major Step Forward

“This treaty is a balancing act between the major arms exporters and buyers as well as states affected by the illicit arms trade,” said Kimball. “It’s a good, effective treaty that is going to make a positive difference in cutting down on irresponsible arms transfers.”

Kimball also said the treaty would establish key human rights criteria that all states would need to evaluate before authorizing arms transfers.

“It specifically prohibits certain arms transfers if there is knowledge that the transfer will be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva conventions, attacks against civilian objects or civilians or other war crimes. So that’s quite strong,” said Kimball. “And some of those provisions arguably would prevent countries like Russia from continuing to supply Syria right now with conventional weapons, if this treaty were in effect.”

Kimball also said the treaty would mandate all states to regulate the export of ammunition - a provision initially opposed by the United States.

“But because ammunition fuels conflicts long after weapons transfers have occurred, many states, including many African states, insisted that ammunition had to be covered," he said. "And the United States has adjusted its position and this treaty will regulate the export of ammunition - which, I should say, the United States already does as a matter of national law and practice.”

Three Countries Veto Treaty

The U.N. treaty had to be approved by consensus, which means that any single country could block its endorsement. Three countries - Iran, North Korea and Syria - objected to various parts of the treaty, effectively vetoing its adoption.

But Britain’s representative, Ambassador Joanne Adamson, told the delegates that the action by the three countries is only a temporary setback.

“This is not a failure,” she said. “Today is success deferred - and deferred by not very long.”

Ambassador Adamson said her delegation will in the very near future take the arms treaty to the United Nations General Assembly for consideration. There the treaty will be able to receive the necessary two-thirds majority to be adopted and become part of international law.

Andre de Nesnera

Andre de Nesnera is senior analyst at the Voice of America, where he has reported on international affairs for more than three decades. Now serving in Washington D.C., he was previously senior European correspondent based in London, established VOA’s Geneva bureau in 1984 and in 1989 was the first VOA correspondent permanently accredited in the Soviet Union.

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