The United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly on April 3 to approve a historic treaty to regulate international trade in conventional weapons. The international aid agency Oxfam, a leading member of the Control Arms Coalition, said the landmark vote sends a clear signal to gunrunners and unscrupulous governments who supply human rights abusers that “their time is up.”
“The Arms Trade Treaty provides a powerful alternative to the body bag approach currently used to respond to humanitarian crises and mass loss of life,” said Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America. “Over the long term, the Arms Trade Treaty will change how countries engage in the arms trade by requiring exporters to take human rights seriously.”
According to a U.N. study in 2011, more than half a million people die as a result of armed violence every year, fuelled by the widespread availability of weapons. Many more suffer horrific injuries and abuses, including rape, while still more are forced from their homes. After six years of diplomatic negotiations and more than 10 years of campaigning from civil society, governments at the United Nations voted for the Arms Trade Treaty by a resounding majority—154 to 3 with 23 abstentions.
“At last we have a legally binding international treaty that will regulate the world’s deadliest business,” said Anna Macdonald, Oxfam’s Head of Arms Control. The agreement sends a clear message to arms dealers who supply warlords and dictators that they “will no longer be able to operate and arm themselves with impunity,” she said.
The treaty creates binding obligations upon governments to assess all arms transfers against the risk that the weapons will be used for human rights abuses, terrorism, transnational organized crime or violations of humanitarian law. It requires governments to refuse transfers of weapons if there is a major risk that purchasing countries will use them to violate human rights or commit war crimes.
Just days before the vote, the permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, Archbishop Francis Chullikatt, issued a statement expressing the church’s support for the treaty. Archbishop Chullikatt emphasized the Holy See’s belief that the good of the human person should be the paramount concern in regulating the arms trade, rather than purely economic interests. The Holy See, he said, urged a reorientation of arms trade regulations “from one which is controlled through the lens of sheer economic interests to one which places overriding importance on human concerns and protecting human life and families.”
António Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said the treaty will help reduce the terrible human cost of the lucrative global arms trade. His office reports that most of the world’s 41 million refugees and internally displaced people have been driven into flight by conflict and armed violence. “Refugees know the costs of armed conflict better than anyone. For them in particular, as well as the millions more forcibly displaced inside their own countries by armed violence, the adoption of this treaty is badly needed,” Guterres said. “The goal for all of us must now be effective implementation.”
To that end, Oxfam’s Offenheiser, though crediting the Obama administration “for ensuring…that the treaty completely bans all arms transfers that exporters know will be used for genocide and other human rights crimes,” said the president “must now lead by example by signing this treaty as soon as it opens for signature in June.” The treaty will enter into force when it receives 50 ratifications from U.N. member states.