Why the world needs an arms treaty

July 9, 2012

In the past two decades, experts monitoring the international arms trade recorded more than 500 violations of United Nations arms embargoes. Just two have resulted in trials and convictions.

This telling statistic helps explain why diplomats, experts and arms control activists are in New York this month at a U.N.-hosted conference aimed at working out a treaty to regulate a vast market that so far has fewer rules than the trade in bananas. Where high reward-low risk activities are concerned, few can match the international arms trade, licit or illicit.

The contrast between the number of embargo violations and the number of arms dealers held to account comes from a study, to be published later this year, conducted by a team led by James Stewart, a law professor at Canada’s University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Stewart looked into cases, dating back to 1990, that prompted U.N. panels of experts to report violations of embargoes imposed by the U.N. Security Council.

“Despite extensive searches, we couldn’t find more than two convictions,” said Stewart, who worked as a prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia before joining academia. What were the two cases that broke the pattern of impunity for embargo busters?

In 2007, a court in The Hague sentenced Dutch businessman Frans Van Anraat to 17 years in jail for selling raw materials for the production of mustard gas to the government of Saddam Hussein. Last January, Chile’s Supreme Court convicted two retired generals and seven others of illegally exporting weapons to Croatia in 1991. The case reached the country’s highest court after a long march through the military justice system.

What is notable about the conviction is that the United Nations arms embargo then in place for Yugoslavia played no role in the court’s decision. It found that the accused broke local laws. Violating a U.N. arms embargo is not a crime in Chile, nor is it in many other countries. To date, only 52 governments have laws regulating arms brokers, according to Oxfam, one of the non-governmental organizations pushing for an arms trade treaty with teeth. Fewer than half those 52 governments have criminal or monetary penalties for illegal arms deals.

Some pro-treaty campaigners see the case of Viktor Bout, the Russian arms dealer dubbed “Merchant of Death”, as Exhibit A for the urgent need for global regulations. Bout, who served as the inspiration for the 2006 Hollywood movie Lord of War, was sentenced to 25 years in prison by a New York court in April. But that sentence was not for having supplied arms to assorted armed groups and dictatorial regimes in Africa’s deadliest conflict zones in the 1990s, as U.N. watchdogs alleged at the time.

Instead, Bout was convicted of conspiracy and terrorism charges stemming from sting operation in which agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) posed as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a guerrilla group that is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. Bout agreed to sell them millions of dollars worth of weapons, a punishable act of “providing material support to a terrorist organization.”


Though Bout’s career has come to an end, there are “literally hundreds” of others out there who flourish by shipping weapons to governments and guerilla groups that violate human rights, according to Andrew Feinstein, author of The Shadow World, Inside the Global Arms Trade, a book that delves deeply into the often overlapping worlds of government-to-government arms deals and the gray and black markets in weapons.

Shady deals that slipped through regulatory loopholes and circumvented embargoes account for a large proportion of the guns used in civil wars from Congo and Angola to Sierra Leone and Sudan. In the Congo alone, the death toll has been estimated in the millions since the early 1990s. If activists pushing for a robust arms treaty are right, more than half a million people, on average, die every year as a result of armed conflict. Civilians top the body count.

When the U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon opened the conference which runs from July 2 to July 27, he termed the absence of a global treaty on the arms trade “a disgrace” and urged delegates to work for a pact with “real impact on the lives of those millions of people suffering from the consequences of armed conflict , repression and armed violence.”

This was an ambitious task, he said, but achievable. Perhaps. We’ll know by the end of July whether the vast majority of the 193 nations in the U.N. who have spoken out in favor of a treaty mean what they say.

The obstacles on the way to throttling the flow of unregulated weapons are as formidable as the scope of the proposed treaty – from tanks, aircraft and ships to missiles, submarines, machine guns and assault rifles.

Small arms have accounted for most of the casualties in conflicts in the past four decades yet China, an energetic small arms exporter, wants them excluded from the treaty. Russia, which is shipping weapons to the government of Syria, balks at a clause that would ban arms exports to recipients who might use them to violate human rights or humanitarian law. China, Iran and Egypt share such reservations.

Under President Barack Obama, the United States, the world’s biggest arms exporter, supports the treaty in principle, a reversal of policy from the administration of George W. Bush. But the U.S. still has reservations about including ammunition in trade controls.

Anna Macdonald, who heads Oxfam’s Arms Control Campaign, has termed the New York conference a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to truly make the world a safer place.”

Missing that opportunity would be a global shame.


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So, your saying that if this treaty was in place then America would not have been able to do Operation Fast and Furious? .. I mean… all those hundreds of weapons we knowingly sold to drug dealers and just let walk away.. that would not be allowed? .. and how would this effect the common person in american and gun ownership?

Posted by WonderReader | Report as abusive

Really Burnd? 500 violations and 2 convictions? Sounds like there’s a problem with the enforcement of these laws. Why add more laws when you cant enforce the laws already in place? Last time I was at the grocery store I dont remember waiting 5 day for the feds to run any background checks for bananas, but ill ask next time i go. Oh and I would be willing to bet that the majority of the half million citizens who die each year from gun violence would have a much better chance of surviving if they were armed. We will always have criminals and we will always have guns. You must fight fire with fire. Maybe you should go get a copy of the declaration of independence and read it. While your at it also read the second amendment of the United States Constitution.

Posted by scott69 | Report as abusive

[…] Why the world needs an arms treaty Posted on July 10, 2012 by admin Why the world needs an arms treaty Where high reward-low risk activities are concerned, few can agree the international arms trade, licit or illicit. The distinction between the number of embargo violations and the number of arms dealers held to account comes from a explore, to be published … Read more on Reuters Blogs (blog) […]

Posted by Why the world needs an arms treaty | Myclicktoearn.com | Report as abusive

Arms treaties are stupid. Over and over again, one side plays fair and the other sides never had any intention of following the treaty.

One side is castigated for any minor violation, while the other sides are not even monitored.

One side falls behind in the arms race, the other sides acquire more and more weapons.

One side is very stupid and on the road to extinction.

Repeat over and over again: debusmann is not very smart, debusmann is not very smart, debusmann is not very smart.

The facts no one wants to read.

Censorship is evil.

Posted by ALLSOLUTIONS | Report as abusive

[…] Why the world needs an arms treaty […]

Posted by Massachusetts man pleads guilty in plot to attack Pentagon, Capitol | Avid Investor Group | Report as abusive

Look at a musket. It is a tube with a thick end where the explosion occurs and an open end where the musket ball emerges. ask the ghosts of the tens of thousands that British volley fire took down during the Napoleonic wars whetner they are effective. Check out the deaths during the genocide in Rwanda/Burundi and see what proportion were the result of machete or burning. It is the man or woman behind the weapon that kills in the same way that there are few “Rogue” dogs only bad trainer/owners the abscence of industrially produced small arms will only impair the efficeincy of our permanent mutual slaughter. The weopons are not the cause.

Posted by paulsageordie | Report as abusive

wow, the Un who is incapable of enforcing any laws now wants new laws so they cannot enforce these too. Now I’m invovled because this changes our Constitutional rights ,our second admendment rights…..It seems that only officials and heads of states sell weapons to foreign goverments or drug dealers….how about enforcing the laws that are existing now!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by jmurphy | Report as abusive

Scott69-Let’s take your NRA-inspired argument a step further. Nuclear bombs don’t kill people, people kill people. So, to make the world safe, let’s give everybody nuclear weapons and fight fire with fire.

Posted by Komment | Report as abusive

[…] Hill is under pressure to adopt the approaching U.N. arms treaty, from the New York Times, to Reuters, to confused and goofy Christians who forgot all about their theology and think that a new […]

Posted by The Captain's Journal » U.N. Arms Treaty: Dreams Of International Gun Control | Report as abusive

This is back door gun control, and if you think the usurpation of our Constitution will stop with this treaty, think again. Our rule of law is what makes this country great because it allows us to stay free. We need to force the Senate to stand against this treaty! Blast email every Senator here: www.1cp.net/promo/ac

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Posted by Mable Schoppe | Report as abusive

I believe that as in the U.K the United States have laws that makethe consumption, possession and trafficking of Narcotics illegal. Obviously that means that there are no drug users, drug gangs or drugs trade in either country.
The U.N should stick to what it does best, tell the world that uncontrolled Arms trading to repressive governments is a BAD thing and leave it at that. The 7,000 men and young boys murdered in Srebenica while the long haired hippies of the Dutch U.N stood by reading their “Terms of Engagement” would surely agree. I am happy to announce that I have made it illegal for beautiful women to discriminate against fat, bald, poor old men but I have a feeling that like many such well intentioned edicts it may be impossible to enforce. When will Politicians return to the “Art of the Possible”?

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[…] Why the world needs an arms treaty […]

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