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5 July 2012: Vol. 5, No. 2

Editorial: Escaping the downward spiral
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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Disarmament and arms control has been on the UN’s agenda since its inception. Its first resolution in 1946 set up a commission to, among other things, make specific proposals for the elimination of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. The UN Charter itself calls for the lowest level of military expenditure and redirection of human and economic resources. The first of the General Assembly’s specialized committees deals with disarmament and international security. And as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in his opening remarks to the arms trade treaty (ATT) conference on Tuesday, 3 July, disarmament and arms control have implications for every other issue the UN covers. “Poorly regulated trade in weaponry,” he argued, “is a major obstacle to everything we do.”

Yet over the last decade or more, UN member states have not been able to deal effectively with disarmament or arms control issues inside this august body. There has been a trend, across all UN fora addressing weapons, of not being able to agree on substance or procedure. This downward spiral seemed to continue this week, with some governments preventing the very opening of the ATT negotiating conference for two days. And while the issues cited for holding up progress in UN fora are often legitimate concerns that need to be addressed, the underlying impetus for the blockages can often be the simple fact that some governments and other actors benefit from the stalemates.

In the context of the ATT, some governments are concerned that the treaty will be used politically against them, preventing them from importing arms. But an even bigger obstacle to progress is that some governments and other powerful domestic constituencies and interests benefit politically or economically from the manufacture, sale, and/or use of weapons. They fear that a robust ATT will have an impact on their profit margins and their political power. Indeed, a strong treaty with the protection of human rights at its core should affect the arms industry—as even arms manufactured in liberal democracies find themselves used as instruments of repression—and the nature of international security as a whole.

In his opening remarks, the Chair of the conference, Ambassador Moritán of Argentina, argued that international security is built on a succession of multilateral actions. The historic lack of action on regulating the international trade in arms is, as the UN Secretary-General said, a disgrace. Ban noted rising military expenditure, armed conflict, and human rights violations as requiring concerted, collective action on this issue. The Norwegian Minister of International Development described the unregulated arms trade as contributing to “conflict, displacement, crime and terrorism, thereby also undermining peace, reconciliation, safety and stability.” The Norwegian and Australian delegations also highlighted the specific effects of the arms trade on women, with Minister Holmås of Norway recalling the systematic rape of women during conflict.

With such overwhelmingly negative effects of the unregulated arms trade in mind, the diplomats at the ATT negotiating conference must buck the trend of failing to agree to strong, legally-binding provisions that, as Norway’s delegation said, make a difference and give added value. To do this, those working for an effective treaty will need to expose and resist the economic and political interests of those that benefit from the maintenance of the status quo and the perpetuation of the excessive manufacture and sale of weapons. They must refuse to compromise the achievement of a strong treaty as this would only satisfy the industrial and political interests of those that seek a weak treaty or none at all.

A strong, robust, transparent, and effective arms trade treaty will be an essential piece of what Ambassador Moritán described as the fabric of collective commitments aimed at strengthening international peace and security. Achieving this treaty will require not just good faith by all participants but uncompromising dedication to alleviating human suffering above other interests, activities, and priorities that undermine collective human security.

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