Suppose weapons of mass destruction had taken 2.1 million lives over the last three years. International diplomacy would surely be at fever pitch, the UN would be in constant session, leaders would be shuttling to and fro trying to bring a halt to the slaughter.
Wrong. Conventional arms have, directly or indirectly, killed that number of people, and yet international talks on an Arms Trade Treaty, which kicked off in December 2006, are stuck in the slow lane. As Jan Egeland, Former UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs writes in the foreword to a new Oxfam report by my colleague Ed Cairns, published today:
‘They will tell us, again and again, that it cannot be done. That the proliferation of conventional weapons cannot be controlled through a global negotiated effort. That we have to live with automatic guns and other weapons of mass misery traveling from conflict to conflict, without effective controls, with a trail of death and destruction among defenceless civilians.
I remember the same was said when the efforts to curb the scourge of landmines and cluster bombs started. But like-minded governments and civil society made inter-governmental agreements possible that may signal the beginning of the end for those horrific types of arms.’
The decision to begin work towards the ATT marked the recognition by a majority of nations that the current patchwork of laws, regional agreements, and embargoes is ineffective, and insufficient to limit the catastrophic effects of easily available weaponry. It was a moment of hope, promising that an ATT would follow in the footsteps of the 1997 landmines ban treaty or the Convention on Cluster Munitions, (signed in 2008 after just two years of negotiations). Three years on, and governments face a stark choice. move to formal negotiations and actually agree a treaty that will save lives, or stay in the slow lane while thousands more people die from conventional arms fire.
Clearly, the ATT won’t end all those deaths, but it would definitely help restrain the kinds of arms sales that fuel war, for example transfers of arms and ammunition to Chad by France, Israel, and Serbia since 2006, including the reported transfer from Serbia in 2006 of 48,610kg of cartridges worth around $900,000, despite the substantial risk of diversion to armed groups. The risk of diversion was apparent at the time of the transfer: in January 2006 the UN Panel of Experts on Sudan reported that Darfuri armed opposition groups ‘have continued to receive arms, ammunition and/or equipment from Chad’, and in 2007 the UN Panel proposed that the UN Security Council impose an arms embargo on eastern Chad. Some of these Israeli and Serbian weapons were indeed diverted.
Every conflict is unique. Every lawless city or region needs its own solution. But one universal route to reducing armed violence is to control the flows of weapons and ammunition in circulation around the world. For more info on the arms trade treaty, visit the Control Arms Campaign website.