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Future of UN Arms Trade Treaty Uncertain

Andre deNesnera

August 02, 2012

A United Nations global arms trade treaty is on hold after member states failed to agree on a final text last month. Many experts say the accord's future is uncertain.

The proposed legally-binding treaty would set international standards to regulate the import, export and transfer of conventional weapons, from aircraft carriers and attack helicopters to machine guns and small arms. Major arms exporters, such as the United States and Russia, and major importers, such as India, took part in the month-long negotiations.

Analysts such as Scott Stedjan, senior policy adviser with Oxfam America, said delegates from more than 150 countries made progress in drafting a treaty text.

"But at the very last minute, the United States said that it was not ready to go along with this treaty and asked for more time," he said. "And then subsequently Russia, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea also joined and said they needed more time."

Broad Support for Treaty

The U.N. treaty had to be approved by consensus, which means that any one country could block its endorsement.

The Obama administration says it is not opposed to an arms trade treaty. But State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said "more time is a reasonable request for such a complex and critical issue." Experts say Washington has reservations about technical issues in the draft treaty.

Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based organization that promotes arms control issues, said the final text had the broad support of a majority of countries.

"It would have established requirements for all states to have national regulations regarding the transfer of conventional weapons. Today, only about 90 countries have any such regulations," he said.

Kimball said the treaty also would have set up criteria that would have to be considered before a state authorized the transfer of conventional weapons.

"Those criteria, as outlined in that treaty text, said that states should deny authorization for a transfer if it was determined there was a substantial risk it could result in human rights violations or crimes against humanity or war crimes," said Kimball.

Future of Treaty Uncertain

John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said many countries felt the treaty would be difficult to enforce.

"I have seen many of these U.N. negotiations and I can tell you, countries line up by the dozens to sign treaties after very difficult negotiations and then they continue to proceed as if the entire exercise had never happened," Bolton said. "And I think that's a very, very real risk here - some countries just being entirely cynical about the obligation that they might undertake by ratifying the treaty, but have no intention of complying with."

Analysts said it is unclear what will happen to the treaty. Scott Stedjan with Oxfam America said countries need to decide what to do next.

"There are some states who want to bring the treaty draft as is to the General Assembly in October for a vote, as a treaty. Other states want to negotiate a little more in the interim period before October," he said. "And other states, like the United States, want to kick the can to next year and have conversations probably next summer."

According to Stedjan, "There are 1,500 people who die from armed violence every day, fueled by the unrestrained arms trade."

Stedjan and others say a treaty regulating the transfer of conventional weapons will ultimately become a reality - the question is, when.

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