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The UN Adopts an Arms Treaty ‘With Teeth’


Peter Woolcott, Australia ambassador to the UN
Peter Woolcott, Australia's ambassador to the UN, center, presided over the negotiations on the Arms Trade Treaty conference in March 2013. The treaty, covering the trade of small arms and light weapons, passed in the General Assembly on April 2, 2013. RICK BAJORNAS

The momentous adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty at the United Nations has been greeted with much enthusiasm worldwide but also strong skepticism as the reality of carrying out its aim — regulating international transfers of conventional arms — sets in.

“Effectiveness will be slow as it comes into force,” Peter Woolcott, the permanent representative for Australia to the UN, told the media on April 2, when the treaty was passed. Woolcott, who presided over the treaty’s negotiations at a nine-day conference in March at the UN, added that it had major countries backing it, which includes the United States, and that it will create a semblance of “predictability in terms of rules” in the trade of small arms and light weapons.

The US was a co-sponsor of the treaty and is the world’s largest exporter of such arms. It managed to assuage fears inside the US, planted by the National Rifle Association, that the pact would infringe on Americans’ right to bear arms domestically.

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As John Kerry, the US secretary of state said of the treaty’s adoption: “By its own terms, this treaty applies only to international trade, and reaffirms the sovereign right of any State to regulate arms within its territory. As the United States has required from the outset of these negotiations, nothing in this treaty could ever infringe on the rights of American citizens under our domestic law or the Constitution, including the Second Amendment.”

The treaty prohibits the sale of arms where a risk occurs that the weapons could be used to commit or help incite serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law, such as genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes. It is the first global treaty to recognize the link between gender-based violence and the global arms trade, a $70 to $80 billion annual industry. Many countries that supported it, even in fits and starts, are now expressing jubilation about its broad goals.

The foreign minister of France, another top exporter of conventional weapons, said in a statement: “This is a major step forward for international humanitarian law and human rights, which are at the heart of the criteria that the states parties undertake to respect in order to regulate the transfer of arms through their national control systems. The treaty, which is designed to limit the impact of the uncontrolled spread of conventional weapons, will also contribute to strengthening international security.”

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Pakistan, which voted for the treaty and is a major arms importer, was far more reserved in its praise but agreed the pact was about “reducing human suffering and saving human lives.”

The text was adopted in the 193-member United Nations General Assembly with 154 votes in favor, 3 against and 23 abstentions. The conference in March failed to pass the text by consensus because of objections from Iran, North Korea and Syria, who said the treaty did not conform to national interests, forcing the vote to go before the General Assembly, where only a majority was needed for it to pass. The text was identical to the one at the conference, but symbolically its supporters would have preferred to have all countries behind it in that forum.

Many women’s peace and gender-conscious groups have stood behind the treaty since its early drafts began to be written in 2006 in perhaps tougher language, but they primarily back its final “framework” status, as Woolcott called it. He noted at the April 2 press conference, however, that supporters will “have to wait and see if it makes a difference” and that the treaty at its very base offers a forum in which states parties that ratify it can now meet to air their concerns and determine how it is carried out. This forum, he said, “doesn’t exist right now” as “exporters can do pretty much what they like.”

The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, a membership network operating since 1915, said in a statement that it welcomed the adoption but added that the treaty was “not sufficiently robust or comprehensive.” The risk of legitimizing the international arms trade, especially irresponsible transfers, “must be avoided through careful interpretation and implementation.”

The league was satisfied that the treaty included legally binding provisions to prevent armed gender-based violence, an aspect reinforced by more than 100 country delegations. The text also requires countries not to authorize transfers of small arms and other weapons that can engender violence against children or contribute to terrorism or transnational organized crime, like human trafficking.

“The treaty’s explicit provision on gender-based violence not only recognizes the links between such violence and the arms trade, but makes it illegal to transfer weapons if there is a risk, for example, that the weapons will be used to facilitate rape,” said Ray Acheson, the head of the Arms Trade Treaty work at the women’s league. Yet the text, the group contends, still contains major limitations and loopholes, a result of the consensus rule at the conference, which some negotiators said confounded its full adoption in March.

The treaty covers a limited number of weapons, and its provisions covering ammunition, munitions, parts and components are full of gaps, the women’s league says. It does not address concerns that major exporters themselves sometimes use arms to engage in violations of human rights or crimes of aggression, it noted.

The treaty will be open for signature as of June 3, 2013, and needs 50 signers to enter into force, which could take years. Whether 50 countries will actually ratify it remains to be seen, as the pact could test nations’ true commitments to what Woolcott called a treaty “with teeth.”

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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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