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9 July 2012, Vol. 5, No. 4

Editorial: Leaving hope for further action on the arms trade
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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On Friday, most delegations made a concerted effort to begin substantive work on the arms trade treaty (ATT) in discussions on goals and objectives and on scope. One cross-cutting theme was the perceived tension between the rights and responsibilities of producers and exporters on the one hand and of importers on the other. Some delegates also highlighted the relationship between the production of weapons and the transfer of weapons, arguing that both should be addressed by a future ATT. However, a separate process is necessary for the regulation of weapons production and the reduction of conventional arms.

As the ATT would likely be limited to regulating the international trade in weapons, some developing countries have been concerned that it will be used to prevent them from acquiring weapons while the major producing countries will not face any impediments to their own ability to acquire weapons. Thus during the general debate of this conference, the Egyptian delegation called for monitoring over and significant reductions in the production, possession, and trade of conventional weapons by industrialized states, arguing that over-production and increasing stockpiles of conventional weapons within major arms exporters and producers “can easily contradict the spirit and purpose” of an ATT.

To many, such a suggestion appears to be an attempt to distract from the core objective of the treaty, which is ostensibly to prevent the transfer of arms in situations where they will likely be used to violate international law and human rights. Yet as Venezuela’s delegation pointed out on Friday, the largest weapon producers have been known to use their conventional weapons to violate these same standards, but “little is said about measures for enabling the control or restriction” of their weapons.

While production by definition arguably falls outside the scope of an arms trade treaty, production is an integral part of the arms trade, as the Pakistani delegation noted on Friday. How then should a treaty on the arms trade address this question of the unregulated vertical proliferation of conventional arms?

The reduction of arms and of their production has been on the UN’s agenda since its inception. Article 26 of the UN Charter gives a mandate to the Security Council and the (now defunct) Military Staff Committee to formulate a plan for regulating arms to promote “the establishment and maintenance of international peace and security with the least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources.” However, as the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are among the largest arms exporters in the world, it should come as no surprise that the Council has failed to fulfill this mandate.

A viable course of action could be for the UN General Assembly to take up this responsibility. The task has already de facto fallen to the General Assembly: its first special session on disarmament in 1978 aimed to end the nuclear and conventional arms race, curb military spending, and develop a global, comprehensive strategy for disarmament. It resulted in a final document that outlined priorities and measures to be undertaken “as a matter of urgency with a view to halting and reversing the arms race and to giving the necessary impetus to efforts designed to achieve genuine disarmament leading to general and complete disarmament under effective international control.” It also emphasized, “The General Assembly has been and should remain the main deliberative organ of the United Nations in the field of disarmament and should make every effort to facilitate the implementation of disarmament measures.” Thus it would be fully within the General Assembly’s purview to establish a dedicated process, as it did for the ATT, to address the issues of the reduction of arms and their production. Indeed, 34 years after this final document was adopted, it is well past time for the UN to address this issue head-on.

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