When nations cannot agree on an environment treaty that will save the planet and ensure the survival of all, expecting them to sign a deal to control conventional arms is like hoping for an interest-free loan from a commercial bank.
Thus it came as little surprise when the United Nations conference on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) failed to agree on a draft text after four weeks of talks. Member states of the United Nations met in New York from July 2-27 to negotiate what was the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) described as “the most important initiative ever regarding conventional arms regulation”.
But nations guided by the national interest rather than idealistic notions on global peace and survival of all pulled in different directions and failed to deliver a robust arms trade treaty that could have made a difference for millions of people confronted with insecurity, deprivation and fear.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a post-conference statement said he was disappointed that the conference ended without agreement on a treaty text that would have set common standards to regulate the international trade in conventional arms.
“The conference’s inability to conclude its work on this much-awaited arms trade treaty, despite years of effort of member states and civil society from many countries, is a setback.”
The opportunity cost of investments in arms is, of course, peace, freedom from fear and freedom from hunger. The trillions of dollars that go into making destructive weapons that have given rise to a Wild-West-like global world order could have been much better spent on poverty reduction, elimination of illiteracy and empowerment of women and the downtrodden.
Former US President Dwight Eisenhower, who was the Supreme Allied Commander during World War II, in his famous 1953 speech titled ‘A Chance for Peace’ said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
Eisenhower knew war and felt war and therefore opposed war, though later on in his presidency he let the defence expenditure soar in view of the growing Cold War tension. But others who occupied the Oval Office after him, perhaps with Jimmy Carter being an exception, made war their state doctrine. The worst among the hawks was President George W. Bush, ironically a draft dodger who avoided combat during the Vietnam War.
In terms of the Eisenhower analogy, the US remains the biggest thief because the United States accounted for 43 percent -- 661 billion dollars -- of the more than 1.5 trillion dollars the countries around the world spent on arms in 2009.
At last week’s botched Arms Trade Treaty talks, the United States, however, sought more time. So did Russia. While, Syria, Iran and North Korea had reservations, China insisted on an end to European Union embargo on arms exports if it were to support the text.
Earlier, the Barack Obama administration indicated it would sign the small arms treaty, but in the face of protests from the arms lobby, the National Rifles Association, and Republican Congressmen, it withdrew its support without making much ado or making it a controversial election issue at a time when the media focus was on the Colorado shooting incident. The Americans were divided over a citizen’s right to possess weapons after the July 20th incident in which 12 people were killed and more than 50 wounded when a heavily armed gunman opened fire at the audience during the first screening of the latest Batman movie.
As the shooting incident underscored the need to eliminate the gun culture enshrined in the US constitution, the UN conference was discussing, among other issues, moves to curb the illicit trade of small arms globally especially in conflict and post conflict zones, prevent weapons reaching illegal entities such as drug gangs, insurgents and pirates and to create reliable data on small arms similar to those that exist for larger weapons.
Also while the conference was on, the UN Security Council witnessed western countries vowing to support the Syrian rebels who are fighting to overthrow the Bashar al-Assad regime. They implied that the support included arming the rebels. Yesterday, it was revealed that President Obama had authorised the CIA and other intelligence groups to arm the Syrian rebels. The rebels are today a well-armed outfit, thanks to the supply of illicit weapons – the very subject of last month’s UN conference.
The Syrian crisis shows that keeping a tab on who is arming whom and what weapons are reaching whom is a tough task complicated by international politics.
During the Cold War era, both the United States and the Soviet Union armed one rebel group or the other in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The Mujahideen rebels won the Afghan war during the Soviet occupation partly because the United States supplied them with the best weapons including the shoulder-fired Stringer missiles.
Closer home, in the 1980s, Sri Lanka was helpless and could only cry foul when India armed and gave weapons training to Tamil separatist rebels. But India at that time denied it was arming and training the rebels.
But what was most scandalous of these secret arms supplies by big powers is easily the United States’ supply of weapons to Contra rebels in Nicaragua. It was scandalous because the United States had supplied weapons to Iran, its sworn enemy, during the Iran-Iraq war despite sanctions. Widely known as the Iran-Contra affair, Contragate and Irangate, the scandal became a big embarrassment to the Ronald Reagan administration. Details that emerged in 1986 implicated senior officials in the Reagan administration with selling weapons to Iran to secure the release of American hostages being held in Lebanon by pro-Iranian militia and also to help the Contra rebels fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The US sold weapons, including the highly sophisticated TOW anti-tank missiles and Hawk surface-to-air missile, to Iran via Israel and the profits were diverted to the rightwing Contra rebels.
Meanwhile, US investigators in a report released in 2007 said they could not account for half of all small arms given to Iraqi security forces. It was believed that most of these weapons had been sold or passed on to rebel groups by Iraqi security forces personnel who were being trained and armed by the US.
While the Syrian rebels receive arms and money from the West and its allies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, Hezbollah, the powerful militia group in Lebanon gets advanced weapons from Iran and Syria. Israel claims that Syria has supplied even chemical weapons to Hezbollah. Two weeks ago, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah publicly declared that his group won the war against Israel in 2006 with arms supplied by Syria and claimed that the group had weapons capable of delivering surprises to Israel.
Charges and countercharges on weapons transfer were also heard from Russia and its neighbours. Georgia, for instance, has accused Russia of arming South Ossetia, an autonomous regime within Georgia. Russia has charged that western intelligence groups such as Mi 6 have helped rebels fighting for independence in Chechnya and Dagestan.
These arms transfers from states to non-state actors or the facts on the ground show how futile the UN aim at controlling illicit supply and sale of small arms is. The illicit turnover is known to be around US$ 60 billion a year.
Commenting on the unchecked flow of conventional weapons or small arms, the United UNODA says in a commentary on its website that small arms facilitate a vast spectrum of human rights violations, including killing, maiming, rape and other forms of sexual violence, enforced disappearance, torture, and forced recruitment of children by armed groups. More human rights abuses are committed with small arms than with any other weapon.
“The trade in small arms is not well regulated and can be considered the least transparent of all weapons systems. In many countries, because of the lack of regulation and controls, it is too easy for small arms to fall into the hands of recipients who use them to commit violations of international humanitarian or human rights law or divert them to the illicit market through theft, leakage, corruption or pilferage.”
It also makes the shocking statement that one person dies every minute from armed violence around the world.
The problem posed by small arms will be once again taken up at another UN meeting to be held from August 27 to September 7 in New York. It is the Second Review Conference on the Action Programme on Combating the Illicit Trade in Small Arms.