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Arms trade controls

July 1, 2012

The United Nations are negotiating a treaty to control the global arms trade for conventional weapons. Germany wants the regulations to cover the trade in small arms and ammunition.

A Palestinian trader displays different types of guns and ammunition for sale at a local market in Gaza City
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The arms trade is, by its very nature, crisis-proof. Weapons manufacturers make more than six billion dollars a year from the sale of tanks and guns, ammunition and fighter jets. Dictators and conflict parties turn to the international market to supply the tools they need to wage wars, or oppress their people. Syria is one current example. The Assad regime is able to maintain its tyrannical rule thanks primarily to weapons imports from Russia.

The proposed UN Arms Trade Treaty aims to ban arms shipments to crisis and conflict zones, and to withhold approval for arms exports to places where they could be used to commit human rights violations, or where they would jeopardize a country's economic development and efforts to combat poverty. The UN member states will begin four weeks of negotiations in New York on Monday.

Free Syrian Army fighters shout "Allahu Akbar" near Deraa.
Syria's imports of weapons from abroad are fuelling the uprisingImage: Reuters

"At the conference in New York, Germany will be campaigning for an effective, legally binding and applicable Arms Trade Treaty," said Cornelia Pieper, Minister of State in the German Foreign Ministry, in an interview with DW. Germany is the world's third largest exporter of weapons after the United States and Russia, contributing around 11 percent of the global market.

Germany calls for comprehensive controls

"We expect this conference to come up with a treaty that, for the first time in the history of the United Nations, will regulate the international trade in conventional armaments," says Amnesty International's weapons expert, Katharina Spiess. She praises the "positive role played by the foreign ministry in the preliminary negotiations" last year.

The government in Berlin states that Germany is working to achieve "the first agreement on legally binding minimum standards for the transfer of conventional armaments." The foreign ministry states that this involves "above all respect for human rights and international humanitarian law, the maintenance of regional stability, and consideration of the internal situation in the country of destination". It adds that "the Arms Trade Treaty should cover all kinds of conventional armaments, in particular small arms and light weapons as well as ammunition."

Cornelia Pieper, Minister of State in the German Foreign Office
Minister of State Cornelia Pieper is calling for binding controlsImage: dapd

Numerous sticking points

However, Simone Wisotzki from the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (HSFK) indicates that this last point is one of many to be addressed in the negotiations that are still unclear. More than 900 million hand guns are in circulation worldwide: one for every eighth person in the world, including children. The former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan has called these "the true weapons of mass destruction." According to Amnesty International, one person dies every minute of gunshot wounds.

Simone Wisotzki told DW that several issues remain controversial, such as "the extent to which criteria relating to human rights and international law can be incorporated. Or the demand that the supply of weapons should not impede poverty reduction or socio-economic development." She points out that the question of the monitoring mechanism has still not been clarified, and that it is conceivable that a special UN body will be created for the task. She does, however, believe that a treaty will help global civil society to call states to account in future if they supply arms to countries in crisis.

Free Syrian Army members raise their weapons during a training session on the outskirts of Idlib, Syria
Key members of the UN security council believe it is a state's sovereign right to trade in armsImage: dapd

Weapons exporters may water down the treaty

Wisotzki predicts that Western states in particular will push for the Arms Trade Treaty to have a strong humanitarian aspect. However, the negotiations will encounter difficulties from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. The United States, Russia, China, France and Britain are at the top of the list of the world's biggest exporters of arms. "These countries are insisting that it is a state's sovereign right to conduct its arms trade. China is fighting the human rights criterion," Wisotzki explains. In her view, the United States is also playing "an ambivalent role", especially on the question of whether ammunition and small arms should be subject to UN controls.

However, Katharina Spiss from Amnesty International believes that the weapons-exporting countries should have an interest in establishing effective international regulations. "We already have regulations at the regional level that control the arms trade. Since 2008, we in the EU have had the ‘common position' which bans the transfer of weapons if this leads to human rights abuses. The United States is also familiar with this kind of rule," she said.

Russian Topol-M strategic ballistic missiles carriers roll down the Red Square, in Moscow, Russia during the 2012 Victory Day Parade
Russian weapons technology is one of the country's main exportsImage: dapd

All 193 UN member states will be around the negotiating table in New York. Agreement can only be reached by consensus, and they have only four weeks in which to achieve it. Simone Wisotzki advises that, if the need for consensus means that the treaty is watered down so much that it is no longer worth the paper it's written on, the Western states should not support it.

Author: Mirjam Gehrke / cc
Editor: Gregg Benzow