Urgent Call for Tighter Rules on Arms Trade

By Laura Rusu

As negotiators head back to New York for the final push on an Arms Trade Treaty, international relief and development organization Oxfam America joined Saferworld and the Control Arms Coalition to call on world leaders to urgently adopt robust rules on international transfers for arms and ammunition as conflicts continue to destroy lives worldwide.

In a new report, “Getting It Right: The pieces that matter for an Arms Trade Treaty,” Oxfam and Saferworld laid out the major gaps in the current text of the draft treaty, with suggestions of how diplomats attending the UN negotiations could fix them.

“More than 325,000 people are estimated to have lost their lives because of armed violence since negotiations for the treaty were halted last year; negotiators must fill the gaps in the draft text, and make sure they agree on a treaty that will save lives,” said Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America. “We have been working towards this treaty for over a decade, and the time has come to seal the deal on a treaty with teeth.”

Loopholes in the existing draft text that could fail to prevent arms being provided to human rights abusers who commit mass atrocities, including genocide if the sale of ammunition and parts and components are only partially-covered. The global ammunitions industry for small arms and light weapons is worth $4.3 billion, with 12 billion bullets produced each year. The report calls for tough controls on their transfer.

“Ammunition is literally the fuel of conflict,” said Saferworld’s Head of Arms Transfer Controls Roy Isbister. “Without ammunition, the guns fall silent.”

The absence of tight controls over the trade in ammunition is expected to become a major bone of contention during the negotiations. The US has expressed opposition to ammunition sales being covered fully by the scope of the treaty; however, others, including many African states say a treaty that does not regulate the sale of ammunition will not be worth the paper it’s written on.

The organizations say the draft treaty’s threshold to assess risks of human rights and humanitarian law violations before agreeing on a transfer is legally ambiguous. The draft treaty sets a threshold of “overriding risk” that states could interpret as allowing national security or other interests to override the obligation not to transfer arms likely to be used to commit serious human rights abuses. The NGOs believe that this loophole could be used to justify arms getting into the hands of warlords and human rights abusers.

Also of concern is that according to the current draft, states may be able to claim that transfers made as part of a separate defense agreement (such as Defense Co-operation Agreements) are not covered by the Treaty. This would mean that transfers made as part of existing defense contracts between Russia and Syria, for example, could still be interpreted as “legal”, despite risks of weapons being misused for human rights violations.

Roy Isbister said: “A strong ATT could make a huge difference to the lives of millions of innocent people around the world. But the loopholes in the current text could actually make things worse, by giving legal cover to bad practice. It’s critical that states refuse to settle for a Treaty that fails to protect lives and livelihoods and instead put all their efforts into delivering a treaty that gets it right.”

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