Faith and development – what's the connection?

October 7, 2009

What comes after the MDGs?

October 7, 2009

What happens when negotiations fail to prevent 2 million deaths? Not much, apparently

October 7, 2009
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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:control arms 2

‘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.

control armsEvery 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.


  1. What happens? Reminds me of a black joke Geoffrey Robertson tells:

    What do you do with a man who kills another man? You put him in jail for life.
    What do you do with a man who kills 20 other men? You put him in a mental asylum until he’s cured.
    What do you do with someone who kills 200,000? Well you send them to a luxury hotel in Geneva for peace negotiations.

  2. Duncan, thanks for drawing attention to this sad but critical issue. My immediate two thoughts when reading this post were of 1) the “military-industrial complex” as described by Eisenhower and 2) of the movie “Lord of War”. These thoughts are connected by an underlying theme – there is money to be made through arms sales, whether through bilateral sales or the black market. Though Eisenhower had urged America to be cautious about letting the military-industrial complex overtake the nation’s commitment to peace and democracy, this recent report on US foreign arms sales suggests that America has not taken heed (
    I suspect that governments are willing to continue stalling on the ATT because it will impact a significant portion of their economy. And while a treaty would certainly help to reduce trans-governmental arms trade, how does it address arms smuggling?

  3. While it is certain that an international effort in restrictions on sale and transfers of small arms weaponry will contribute to reducing access to such weapons, however, it will not make a sizeble impact on the problem. Unlike weapons of mass destruction, small weaponry is easier to manufacture, and many countries that manufacture such weapons have their own national interests. Secondly, in today’s globalized world, ”fakes” or poorly manufactured small weapons can be easily accessible from the black market in countries such as Brazil or Ghana. Any effort to come up with solutions to the problem has to include all of these aspects. Furthermore, any effort has to simultaneously target conflicts, because as long as armed conflicts still exist, parties will always want to acquire weapons and ammunitions. Lastly, I think that there is no political will to solve this problem from major world powers.

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