The world’s three largest arms sellers have raised objections to key elements of a long-awaited UN arms trade treaty ahead of a meeting in New York on Monday.
The aim of the treaty, in preparation since 2006, is to reduce the 750,000 arms-related deaths that occur each year. But its backers face a tough challenge to reach agreement on a robust treaty ahead of a July 27 deadline.
The US, Russia and China all oppose the inclusion of binding language aimed at preventing arms from being exported to countries where they could be used to undermine human rights.
China and the US also want to narrow the range of weapons the treaty covers. Zimbabwe and Syria, meanwhile, reject the idea of a treaty altogether, according to western diplomats.
The US stance is causing difficulty for the UK, which co-sponsored the treaty and which regards the inclusion of ammunition and robust language on human rights as a priority.
The arms trade is already regarded by many as under-regulated. Amnesty International, a human rights group closely involved in the development of the treaty, points out that there are fewer international rules regulating the trade in arms than the trade in bananas.
“We need a legally binding, nationally enforced, universal treaty,” said one western diplomat, noting that, while there was widespread support among most UN members, bringing big exporters such as the US, China and Russia on board would take “time and effort, and require skilful diplomacy”.
It is still unclear whether this could become the forum to address high level disagreements, such as the recent US accusation that Russia was supplying helicopters to war-torn Syria.
But the idea is to force countries to think about the consequences of their arms exports and employ a rigorous risk analysis process, as already happens in areas such as the EU.
As with many other UN treaties, US objections are based on national sovereignty concerns.
In October 2009, the Obama administration reversed Washington’s opposition to the ATT and took an active role in negotiations. But the US is still resisting binding language prohibiting arms transfers to countries if there is strong evidence they could be used to undermine human rights. It also opposes the inclusion of ammunition, arguing that this is too sensitive and technically difficult to implement.
Meanwhile, Russia is one of the 41 signatures of the Wassanar arrangement regulating the trade in conventional arms and duel use technology. Even so, it is against the ATT introducing binding rules on international human rights, international humanitarian law and socioeconomic development. Moscow argues that such language is open to subjective and ideological interpretation.
In contrast, China has not yet signed any arms controls agreements and is seen as one of the most important nations to get on board. Though it says it broadly accepts the idea of a treaty, it is likely to be one of the most challenging nations to persuade to accept robust regulation and a link to human rights, which it says is too subjective.
Those involved in the negotiations say Beijing wants to exclude small arms and light weapons and government-to-government transfers, which would effectively gut the treaty, according to its sponsors.
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