The world is on the verge of an historic opportunity to counter the ability of perpetrators of genocide and mass atrocities to carry out their crimes. On July 27, the month-long debate and years-long preparation of a global Arms Trade Treaty will come to an end. Following the release of the first draft on July 24, there’s been a 3-day rush to close remaining loopholes and finalize a strong text. Today, United to End Genocide joined major humanitarian and arms control groups in a letter pressing President Obama to do just that.
The current draft would prohibit states from transferring conventional weapons that violate arms embargoes or facilitate acts of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes. It would also require all countries to establish national regulation to control transfers of conventional arms and to regulate arms brokers. The practical result of these steps would be to make it harder for perpetrators of atrocities to gain weapons and get away with it. In doing so, the treaty would save lives.
However, at least three major concerns related to the current text remain. As it stands, sections of the treaty language only apply to “exports” rather than “transfers”. This is a technical point that can allow arms to find their way into the hands of dubious actors, legally, in the form of gifts or other non-exports.
Perhaps more worrisome, the draft would only prohibit transfers of arms when there is a clear statement that their purpose would be to facilitate genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. This is something no state would ever admit to outright. For example, Russia is not stating the reason for its arms transfers to Syria as being for the purpose of carrying out atrocities, but there is clear evidence that this is the reality on the ground.
As Galen Carey of the National Association of Evangelicals states, “The ban on arms transfers for the purpose of committing genocide or other war crimes should be extended to cases in which the country initiating the transfer knows that the weapons will be used for war crimes or other atrocities, whether or not that is the stated purpose.”
Finally, the current text also leaves out several war crimes, including intentionally directing attacks against civilian populations.
The solution? The text must be amended to incorporate the international standard of not “purposefully and knowingly” transferring arms that are likely to be used for committing atrocities. The language that describes the types of crimes included should be illustrative rather than an exhaustive list. As Scott Stedjan of Oxfam America says, “A treaty that does not clearly state that arms transfers to actors committing atrocities against their own people is unacceptable behavior is not worth having at all.”
But there is still time to amend the treaty to address the remaining gaps. “With further work in the remaining hours,” says Daryl G. Kimball of the Arms Control Association, “a good Arms Trade Treaty is within sight.” Countries like the United States and others must push for changes that will close the existing loopholes.
Support for such a strong global Arms Trade Treaty is widespread, including humanitarian workers, retired U.S. Admirals, former child soldiers and others directly affected by the consequences of an unregulated global trade in arms.
“Drug cartels in Mexico, insurgent fighters in Afghanistan, warlords in Sudan, and pirates in Somalia thrive off of the lax global regulation of weapons and ammunition sales,” said Admiral Stuart Platt (Ret.). “The ATT gives us an opportunity to clamp down and stop this spread of terror and violence.”
Former child-soldier Ishmael Beah of Sierra Leone recognizes the limits of such efforts, but provides a further powerful plea in a The New York Times op-ed. “The treaty is not a panacea to end all violence, genocide and human rights abuses, but it is a colossal step in the right direction,” wrote Beah, “It’s time to make the world a safer place.”
For the sake of Ishmael and other victims of atrocities both past and potentially in the future, United to End Genocide urges the Obama administration to lead in the remaining hours and to take that colossal step.
Ten of thousands have already joined the call for an effective Arms Trade Treaty. Will you?