All eyes are on the US as Arms Trade Treaty opens for signature

By Coco McCabe
Miriam, her husband, and their five children fled the war in Syria and are now living in a roughly constructed room in Lebanon. Photo: Sam Tarling/Oxfam

In a historic vote at the UN in April, world governments took a step towards alleviating one of the scourges of the 21st century--the free flow of weapons around the globe--by agreeing to an international Arms Trade Treaty. But their work isn't done.

The 154 countries voting in favor of the treaty now need to seal the deal by signing it. That opportunity opens on June 3--and Oxfam hopes that the United States will be among the first to add its name.

Early efforts to control the global arms trade date back almost 100 years to when members of the League of Nations tried unsuccessfully to develop an agreement in the wake of World War I. Ten years ago, when Oxfam joined Amnesty International and the International Action Network on Small Arms to formally launch the Control Arms Campaign, only three small countries--Costa Rica, Cambodia, and Mali--supported the idea of a treaty. Today, the vast majority of world governments now agree with them as consequences of the poorly regulated trade make headlines almost daily.

The suffering in Syria, where armed conflict continues to rage two years after an uprising, is but one example. Within the country, nearly seven million people need humanitarian assistance and more than one million others have fled to neighboring Egypt, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.

“Millions of people around the world have stood up and called for governments to put an end to the irresponsible arms trade and develop rules of behavior that put human rights and the protection of civilians at the center of arms trade decisions,” said Scott Stedjan, a senior policy advisor for humanitarian response at Oxfam America. “The most heart-rending appeals are from civilians who have endured the chaos and horror of unregulated combat, irregular combatants, and loose arms flowing over borders.”

The treaty—the world’s first—will require governments to determine whether the arms they want to sell or transfer could be used for human rights abuses, violation of humanitarian law, or terrorism. If there is a major risk of that happening, the new global norm that the treaty will eventually establish would make those transfers very difficult.

The treaty will come into force 90 days after 50 countries have ratified it. But first, world governments must sign it, a process that will begin in just a few weeks. Many governments will be watching to see how the US handles this next step. As a leading exporter representing about 70 percent of the global arms market, the US carries enormous clout: The decisions it makes will, inevitably, influence those of other countries. By signing swiftly, the US will signal the urgency of this historic opportunity.

An estimated 1,500 people a day lose their lives because of armed violence. The treaty won’t stop that overnight, but it will begin to change the way in which countries buy, sell, or transfer the arms that have brought devastation to countless families and communities around the world.