“Week of Action” on arms trade treaty

June 14, 2009

John Duncan – John Duncan is the United Kingdom Ambassador for Multilateral Arms Control and Disarmament. He comments regularly via Twitter and on his own Blog. The opinions expressed are his own. –

Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan once remarked that in terms of people killed and injured every day, conventional weapons are the worst weapons of mass destruction in the 21st century.

Monday sees the start of a “Week of Action” to generate support for a new International Arms Trade Treaty, organised by NGO alliance “Control Arms” which brings together Amnesty International, Oxfam and IANSA.

Control Arms have been lobbying for an ATT for the best part of ten years; inauspicious timing perhaps in a decade that is increasingly refereed to as “the Decade of Stalemate” in the field of international multilateral diplomacy.

The low point of international efforts to curb the proliferation of conventional weapons was probably 2006, with the collapse of the United Nations Review Conference on Small Arms and Light Weapons in New York. But it was also the year that a group of seven countries (Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, Kenya, Japan, and the UK) launched a process in the United Nations leading to the negotiation of a new legally binding treaty to regulate the international arms trade.

The humanitarian and moral case for regulation is unassailable, with hundreds of civilians being killed every day by weapons that have found their way into the hands of criminals, terrorists, insurgents and more recently pirates.

But economics is an equally important driver in this debate. As the discussion in the UN has moved forward, more and more companies from the arms industry itself have come to support the need for international regulation of what is now a global industry. The patchwork of arms export control agreements that currently exist has frustrated cooperation amongst responsible companies and served as a brake on inward investment. They have had the effect of creating competitors operating on different standards who are pushed towards the areas of the market where there is the highest risk these weapons will be misused or diverted.

As someone whose job bridges both nuclear and conventional weapons proliferation, I am acutely aware that one of the key elements of making progress towards a World Free of Nuclear Weapons is to stop the uncontrolled proliferation of conventional weapons.

Next month, discussions will reconvene at the UN on the future Arms Trade Treaty. My colleague Grace Mutandwa has blogged on FCO site about the impact of the current absence of such regulation in her own country. Other Foreign Office colleagues will provide their own perspectives in the coming days. Readers can also follow the event on Twitter.


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Very well put. “Stop the proliferation of conventional weapons”. Perhaps that wisdom should be imparted upon President Obama who is currently pitching nations to by American weapons. He sights the need to modernize those military’s whose equipment was obsolete. I believe it was Buckminster Fuller who said “Either war will become obsolete or man will become obsolete”.

Posted by anubis | Report as abusive

Surely the UN and countries like Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, Kenya, Japan, and the UK making propositions at the United Nations Review Conference on Small Arms and Light Weapons in New York, USA will need to rebuild their credibility before any such noble notion will get any traction.

Posted by Peter H | Report as abusive

The Un being located in a militant country like the US ensures little progress in this field as it is being a mere puppet in these issues to the militant countries. The US is the main dealer in arms and weapons of war, they produce evrything from guns to tanks to fighter jets to nuclear bombs.The Un should be abolished as it is apuppet of militant countries.A new global organization should be formed in sweden with nuclear free nations as the leaders and this new body should be given global authority to destroy weapons of war and weapons that kill

Posted by rius | Report as abusive

I think rius might find that the US isn’t the number one main arms dealer, and unfortunately it’s not the only area they are falling behind in. (I’m not an American, but I’d rather see America as the beacon it once was remain, as fundamentally in their idealistic state they do stand for good things).I’m not too certain about Sweden being a symbol of purity either… they have a very interesting between the two world wars history which you really have to dig into just to find any scant information about. They were quite helpful in developing the German arms industry prior to the NSDAP taking over from Hindenberg (mind you the Russians were too!).

Posted by Peter H | Report as abusive

There are many arms manufacturers all over the world and they want to sell what they make. So which ever state or group that has the most money can usually get the best arms and win their conflict. The issue is not about arms. It is about conflicts. If you stopped all arms movements world wide what would happen? Nothing! Conflicts have been going on since before civilization. If they don’t have guns they use machetes. They will tie their enemy to a tire, fill it with gas and light it up to terrorize the people they want to control. How do you stop conflict? Well even if nations were not promoting conflict in one area or another there would still be conflict. People are not created equal. And taking for Samuel Colt, weapons do make people more equal. It is the unarmed that are usually slaughtered. It would be nice to think we could live in a world where weapons were not necessary but that is fantasy. The World isn’t fair and conflict is a fact of life. The UN should be working on how to address conflict and stop worrying about arms sales.

Posted by B.Free | Report as abusive

B. Free is correct. Such a treaty would make its signers feel better about themselves, and open up a new black market to many new places. Guns are too simple and too useful to be set aside by people who think they need them.

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive

LET”S BE REAL GUYS ! The US just made 40 billion this year from selling arms ( see reuters article today )I don’t think the US people and government really care about doing the right thing when big money is involved. Just watch Obama’s new financial regulations, they will washed down the toliet bowl of history by the congress( at the demand from the lobbists, remember those people Obama was going to get rid of!)

Posted by gd | Report as abusive

Dear Sir,Great Debate on Week of action on Arms by Mr.John Duncan is a remarkableone.We are always talking about arms purchases by ruling Countries and her rebels for achieving their aims.These are all bad.All nations should reduce their arms purchase or build up for any problematic actions.Of course, nations should have enough arms for their security,protection,and for safeguards.Better building,storing more arms are not healthy signs.It may go to wrong hands.Prevention is better than curing.

Posted by krishnamurthi ramachandran | Report as abusive

It is all too easy to say from a position of comfort, where armed violence does not have a systemic impact on your life and livelihood, that an ATT is just fassying around when the real question is how do we deal with conflict.When you think of large-scale conflicts in which guns have apparently not been primarily employed, you probably think of the Rwandan Genocide. But the reality was that there were loads and loads of guns there – what often happened was that commanding squads who were armed with guns would create a perimeter and then you’d get the machete squads going into that. It was very strategically planned. Guns are force multipliers – that’s what they do. They turn a conflict into an exponentially bigger bloodbath.The big problem, in response to the second point raised by drewbie, is that that “black market” you refer to kind of already exists. Just like in the movie ‘Lord of War’ there are many, many loopholes which unscrupulous agents can exploit to divert shipments of arms and ammo to really REALLY bad people who will use these lethal tools to commit atrocities.Personally Id quite like to give arms dealers and their best customers a hard time.

Posted by rambaud 2 | Report as abusive

I think a set of strong global rules is the way to go if we are to get international arms trade under control. And for all its short comings, the UN should be the place for discussions and eventual negotiations of an arms trade treaty.But we need an arms trade treaty that is effective – that is, a treaty that will stop weapons ending up in the wrong hands, hands that use them to fuel bloody conflicts, poverty and serious human rights abuses. For this to happen it has to be tough! And it has to be built on international law – like International human rights law, humanitarian law and countries obligations to promote development.When it comes to the US (still the world’s biggest arms exporter), I think Obama might change things. I saw the Control Arms campaign has launched a new report to make Obama support the ATT. Go sign the the petition at www.controlarms.org/en/obama

Posted by Oistein | Report as abusive

It’s important to remember the big picture here: that the world is poised on the edge of a major new nuclear arms race (a nuclear Iran will almost inevitably lead to a rush by Arab states to acquire similar capabilities).Also that nuclear weapons are most likely to be used by new nuclear powers (Hiroshima – and near misses during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Pakistan/India Kargil crisis).We should therefore seize with both hands any opportunity to strengthen and build trust in a rules-based international arms control system.It’s worth remembering the example of the last American president to be serious about arms control – Ronald Reagan, who came close in 1986 to agreeing a deal with Mikhail Gorbachev to abolish all nuclear weapons, blind siding his officials who had not even considered that such a dramatic move could be possible.Even though the Reykjavik talks broke down, Reagan still achieved remarkable progress. In Kissinger’s words, “he transformed what had been a marathon race into a sprint.”Schultz, Perry, Kissinger and Nunn have recently put the idea of a nuclear free world back on the agenda. John Duncan’s argument that the Arms Trade Treaty will help make nuclear arms control more possible is thus spot on.

Posted by David Steven | Report as abusive

Might be true that arms industry is interested in a level playingfield in international arms trade regulations. But regarding control standards, it is pretty clear that they are just going for the lowest common denominator. And during current economic crisis, governments too are interested in promoting their economy including conventional arms manufacturers in order to save jobs. Will they always resist pressure from workers on the streets? Current press reports that Belgium – pressed by the unions – have redently licensed a major small arms deal with libya, indicates that even within the eu, which is considered having an exemplary arms transfer control system (the now legally binding code of conduct), standards might already be eroding. If the eu can’t hold its own house in order, how can they credibly be lobbying for a global arms trade treaty?

Posted by Robalin | Report as abusive

Rius is right. If there has been a change in military equipment sales it will be noted in Janes shortly. GD you are correct. Obama is pushing for other nations to modernize their “Obsolete” military’s with new U.S. made hardware.As a U.S. citizen I am hard pressed to identify a time that we stood united behind all of our ideals. At best these ideals were used to motivate the masses to war so a privileged few could prosper.We live in a world where the western life style is desired by more and more. If all of humanity consumed resources like the U.S. we would need three Earths. Ultimately we will have to learn to live with less in the wealthier countries while uplifting the poor everywhere. The alternative is the age old struggle for resources. War, if it hasn’t already begun.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive