No Arms for Atrocities

Amid residential buildings destroyed by the military’s artillery fire, Syrian soldiers guard a checkpoint in the city of Homs (Flickr/FreedomHouse).

It is not illegal to sell weapons to those who commit genocide and mass atrocities. Take a moment to think about that. The arms being sold right now to commit atrocities in Syria, Burma, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are not regulated by any international laws or treaties.

In fact, there are more regulations on the trade of bananas and postage stamps than there are on the trade of conventional weapons.

This summer, that glaring flaw can be addressed. In July, the United Nations will enter into the final phase of negotiations over a global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). It should be no surprise that United to End Genocide has joined a diverse coalition of organizations, from Catholic missionaries to retired U.S. admirals and generals, and signed onto a letter with over 50 other organizations encouraging President Obama to “seize the historic opportunity to negotiate a robust, bullet-proof Arms Trade Treaty”. In each of the conflict areas around the world we are involved with, free flowing arms fuel and exasperate conflict.

The Arms Trade Treaty would close loopholes exploited by warlords and terrorists and put pressure on black market arms dealers that benefit from doing business with the worst elements of society.

But how strong or “bulletproof” will the treaty be? Under negotiation are the types of weapons that will be covered and whether countries wishing to sell weapons “shall not” sell them to countries with a substantial risk of violating international human rights standards or if they should merely “take into account” such violations. These are important distinctions. If it does not state that countries “shall not” trade weapons to countries with records of human right violations, then weapons suppliers will be free to ignore existing obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law in the interest of making money by arming dangerous elements. That is a loophole that has been described as “big enough to drive a tank through”.

Even with these fine points being debated, 153 countries have voted in support of draft forms of the treaty, but exceptions include Syria and its main arms supplier Russia. Other objectors include Egypt, Algeria, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, Pakistan and China.

To be clear, an ATT will not suddenly stop illicit flows of weapons throughout the world, but it will be an important step in making the lives of illegal arms dealers more difficult, potentially stopping notorious arms dealers like Viktor Bout. Bout operated a robust international weapons trade network that employed hundreds of people, involved countless forged documents and included use of his own fleet of aircraft fueling civil wars in Angola, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. As might be expected, such a trail often led to charges against Bout, but over and over again, lack of common international standards allowed him to work in countries with weak or non-existent controls and slip away through legal loopholes. It was years before Bout was finally caught. The Arms Trade Treaty would narrow the space for other would-be Viktor Bout’s in the future.

As United to End Genocide continues to focus attention on the worst individual cases of mass atrocities in Burma, Sudan, Syria, and the DRC, the Arms Trade Treaty is one tool that will serve to protect civilians in each of them.

Take action and sign our petition for a strong Arms Trade Treaty.

No arms for atrocities. It’s just common sense.