The Control Arms campaign recently reported that bullets manufactured in Greece, China, Russia and the United States had been found in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where over 4 million people have been killed in the past five years. The country is covered by a weapons embargo, but manufacturers are able to circumvent their own national laws by simply moving arms through intermediary countries. Groups like Human Rights Watch say these sales help to facilitate the formation of new armed groups and unpredictable mercenaries.
But this is just one instance in what is truly a global problem, and on Thursday the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to start work on an arms trade treaty aimed at regulating the flow of conventional weapons that are fueling conflicts around the world. If a final treaty were ratified, it would establish legally binding international safeguards for the import and export of weapons. Proponents argue it would not only create greater transparency, but also make the practices found in Congo prosecutable under international law. The resolution calls the absence of international standards in arms trade "a contributory factor to conflict, displacement of people, crime and terrorism."
Human rights groups are calling for the most sweeping treaty possible -- one that would cover all conventional arms from small and light weapons to tanks and helicopters. Whether or not those wishes can be preserved as the countries compromise to reach a treaty acceptible to all remains an open question.
Although the resolution garnered 139 "yes" voters, it must still overcome considerable hurdles -- namely Moscow, Beijing and Washington. Russia and China were among the 24 abstentions and the lone "no" vote came from the United States. As major arms exporters, their non-participation could radically limit the effectiveness of any agreement.
Critics sharply attacked the US, noting that other major arms exporters -- including Britain and the entire European Union -- are supporting the initiative.
In the past, human rights groups praised Washington's anti-arms-trafficking regulations. Alun Howard of the London-based International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), praised the US standards as being "probably the best in the world." Ironically, that's exactly the argument the US used when voting against the resolution.
"The only way for a global arms trade treaty to work is to have every country agree on a standard," said Richard Grenell, a spokesman for the US mission to the UN told the Associated Press. The official US line is that so much compromise would be required to pass a UN treaty that it would be watered down to the point of not having any substance. "For us, that standard would be so far below what we are already required to do under US law that we had to vote against it in order to maintain our higher standards."
But Rebecca Peters, IANSA's director, believes the Bush administration's decision is the result of powerful lobbying from groups like the National Rifle Assocation (NRA), which has traditionally opposed UN arms control resolutions. "The most likely explanation for why the US was the sole opponent of the resolution is that the US has Congressional elections in two weeks, and the government is bowing to pressure from the extremist NRA," Peters said.