UNITED NATIONS (IPS/GIN) – The United Nations concluded an open-ended working group for an international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in mid-July, part of a lengthy and politically contentious process to nail down a basic framework for curbing deadly illegal weapons sales.
“An open-ended working group in the UN is where all states can come to a meeting, it’s an open invitation,” Amnesty International spokesperson Brian Wood explained to IPS. “They are trying to get a better idea of what the realistic scope and parameters for this treaty are.”
Firearms kill over 1,000 people every day, and severely injure three times that number. Many more are raped, forced from their homes and threatened by people with guns.
In 2006, UN member states voted on a proposal to target illegal and illicit small arms trafficking and create the ATT. One hundred and fifty-three countries voted in favor of the proposal, named Resolution 61/89, while 24 countries abstained with only one–the United States–voting against it.
Abstaining countries included major arms exporters like China and Russia, and major importers like Pakistan and Egypt.
The U.S. is the largest producer, supplier and importer of small arms in the world.
The U.S. also accounts for one in 10 of the gun-related deaths in the world, about 31,000 per year, according to a USA Today study, more than half of which are suicides.
The problem in most affected countries, many of which are poor or underdeveloped, are illegally and illicitly procured weapons. Ninety percent of casualties in conflict areas are caused by small arms, according to the Red Cross.
Small arms include pistols, assault rifles, light machine guns, submachine guns, mortars, portable anti-aircraft guns, grenade launchers, anti-tank missiles and rocket systems, hand grenades and anti-personnel landmines.
Control Arms, a coalition group formed by Amnesty International, Oxfam, the International Action Network on Small Arms and hundreds of smaller non-profits, has been working closely with the UN to produce a treaty strengthening and enforcing international laws on weapons trade.
The Arms Trade Treaty would set up a risk assessment system to determine the legality of an arms transfer on a case-by-case basis, based on the likelihood the weapons would be used to harm civilians or in some way other than national defense or law enforcement.
The ATT would also function as a legal agreement to enforce laws and treaties that already exist. Many laws are in writing already, but are not enforced, and national laws differ just enough to make cross-border enforcement very difficult, experts say.
“You can only talk about legal transfers of arms when you’ve got a law,” Mr. Brown told IPS. “If the law is not very good, you can say the transfers are legal but it doesn’t really mean much. For example, the arms that went to Rwanda leading up to the genocide and even during the genocide were never designated illegal even though there were acts of genocide.”
“Arguably the people who did the supplying, if they did it knowingly, should be complicit in acts of genocide,” he added.
One of the clearest examples demonstrating the need for such a treaty was the business of the recently arrested Israeli arms dealer, Leonid Minin. Mr. Minin relied on legal companies in many countries to illegally ferry arms to conflict zones around the world in such a way that made him immune to prosecution in any one country.
According to Control Arms, one 1999 transaction alone involved using separate shell companies based in Gibraltar and the British Virgin Islands, a bank in Hungary and a plane from England to traffic 68 tons of Ukrainian weapons through Burkina Faso to government forces in Sierra Leone and rebels in Liberia, both accused of egregious human rights abuses.
Amnesty cites Mr. Minin’s arrest and subsequent release in Italy in 2000 as a prime reason this treaty is needed. Mr. Minin was arrested near Milan but could not be prosecuted because Italian authorities did not have jurisdiction over places where actual crimes were committed.
Mr. Minin was combined with Russian arms dealer Viktor “Merchant of Death” Bout to form the main character in the 2005 Hollywood movie “Lord of War.”
Mr. Bout helped states ship arms and other supplies to war zones, notably working for the United States government in Iraq, but was accused of using his connection to cover a massive illegal arms trafficking business.