One Region
August 7, 2012
Holding up a torch for life: regulating weapons

Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries joined dozens of other nations in fighting for a robust and comprehensive Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) during negotiations at the United Nations headquarters in New York from 2 to 27 July, but their efforts were frustrated by President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign team.

The Caribbean countries have very good reason for wanting a strong ATT. In recent years, these countries have become the hapless victims of the illegal trade in guns associated with drug trafficking. There has been an overwhelming escalation in violent killings even in the smallest of the Caribbean countries, some of them directed at tourists.{{more}} While the ATT is about the legal trade in weapons (and not the illegal trade), it is important because of the knock-on effect of the legal trade. Legal weapons get into the hands of illegal operators.

The global figures make alarming reading. According to Oxfam, armed violence kills up to 2,000 people every day; 12 billion bullets are produced each year; that’s enough bullets to kill every person on the planet twice; in Africa, about 95 per cent of the weapons most commonly used in conflict – derivatives of the Kalashnikov rifle – come from outside the continent; armed conflicts are estimated to have cost Africa $18billion a year – about the same as global aid to the continent.

No wonder the majority of the 193 nations participating in the conference on the ATT did so with an intense desire to adopt a treaty that effectively regulates this trade internationally, backed up by national law. There are no good arguments not to do so, although the governments of a handful of nations attempted to frustrate the negotiations. Among those were the governments of Algeria, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Syria and Venezuela. By reliable accounts, while China and Russia did not support a truly robust treaty, they did nothing to disrupt negotiations and, in the end, were ready to sign it.

The surprise came on the eve of the conference’s end. As the representatives of countries were preparing to sign the treaty, the US delegation, which had been helpful up to that point and had signalled to the Chair its support of the ATT, was given instructions to block it. Reports indicate that the Obama re-election campaign decided the risk of offending the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the US was too great, particularly as President Obama had supported an assault rifle ban in the wake of shootings in Colorado. Two gun control actions in one week, with less than 100 days to the Presidential election, were regarded as providing live ammunition to the Republican camp. Thus, not for the first time, national election considerations trumped international good.

The countries that did not want the ATT took advantage of the US position to demand that without consensus on the document, it could not be signed.

To the credit of Caribbean countries, they remained robust in their support for the treaty. Speaking on behalf of 91 countries (including Canada, all the CARICOM states, all the states of the European Union and major African countries such as South Africa and Nigeria), the representative of Mexico declared: “We are disappointed this process has not come to a successful conclusion”. And the statement concluded: “We are determined to secure an Arms Trade Treaty as soon as possible – one that would bring about a safer world for the sake of all humanity”.

The Conference decided that its report, with the draft treaty attached, will be sent to the U.N. General Assembly this October. If over 100 countries co-sponsor a resolution to adopt the ATT as presently agreed, it could go through. With 91 countries already strongly supporting the draft treaty, it should not be difficult to get a further 20 countries on board, but intense and consistent work would be required across nations, especially the U.S. – a daunting prospect.

In this connection, the Commonwealth Advisory Bureau (CAB) in London noted that 32 of the 91 countries “were Commonwealth countries, and notably included the U.K., Canada, New Zealand and Australia, as well as the Caribbean Community countries”. The CAB director, Daisy Cooper, proposed that Commonwealth foreign ministers, who will hold their annual meeting ahead of the U.N. general assembly on September 29, should “publish a strong statement calling on all countries to agree to a robust and comprehensive arms trade treaty at the general assembly in October”. The foreign ministers already have an important agenda to consider, including the recommendations of an Eminent Persons Group on reform of the Commonwealth. Nonetheless, there is merit in this proposal, particularly as, if there is Commonwealth cohesion, 21 additional Commonwealth countries could be added to the group of 91, bringing their total to at least 112.

But, it would not be possible to get the U.S. on board in October at the U.N. Given its present concerns about signing the treaty and so providing the Republican Party with ammunition to fight it in the November presidential elections, the Obama administration would oppose such a move. And, for the Caribbean in particular, it would be crucial for the U.S. to be party to the treaty and to reflect arms and ammunition control in its national law.

Therefore, another option – and one being considered by many governments and non-governmental organizations – would be to push for another ATT conference in 2013, when the US presidential election is over. After all, much of the work has already been done on the draft treaty and many of the major hurdles overcome, even with the United States.

The world has a chance for a comprehensive treaty that, in the words of Oxfam, would “unambiguously stop arms transfers where there is a substantial risk, they will be used in violation of international human rights and humanitarian law, or will undermine sustainable development”.

Caribbean Community countries held up a torch for life in the ATT negotiations; they should continue to carry it forward proudly, with their friends in the Commonwealth and the Organization of American States.

(The Writer is a Consultant and former Caribbean diplomat)

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