Guns out of control

UN member states meet in New York to debate global Arms Trade Treaty amid calls for greater restrictions to stem abuses.

Guns and ammunition handed by residents are seen before their destruction at the 7th Military Zone on the outskirts of Monterrey
Unlike chemical and nuclear weapons, there are no global treaties restricting the sale of conventional arms [Reuters]

In October 2008, Congolese rebels launched a killing spree in the town of Kiwanja that left 150 people dead. The guerrillas went house-to-house grabbing young men, dragging them outside, and shooting them in the face and chest.

Helping them in the massacre were arms that the rebels had looted from a military depot in the town of Rumangabo a few days earlier. The depot was loaded with small arms imported to the Democratic Republic of Congo from China.

But it wasn’t the first time that the depot had been looted.

“I’ve taken Rumangabo two times,” guerrilla leader Laurent Nkunda told Amnesty International shortly after the 2008 attack. “We can’t even count the number of weapons we captured at Rumangabo, there were so many.

“After the first time, the FARDC [Congolese military] filled it up again with arms of all calibres… It’s the government that gave them to me. I would like to say thank you to China, for giving the FARDC all these weapons,” Nkunda said

 Landmark Arms Trade Treaty gains momentum

But Nkunda’s apparent glee over the easy availability of small arms is cause for deep despair among many others.

The world is awash in “small arms”. But unlike chemical, biological and nuclear weaponry, there are no global treaties restricting conventional weapon transfers. Wanton violence against civilians is fuelled by the trade, non-government organisations say, and hundreds of thousands of people are killed each year by such arms.

Now, after 15 years of NGO advocacy and global negotiations, United Nations member states are meeting in New York to hammer out a first-of-its-kind global Arms Trade Treaty.

Many believe the treaty will quell human rights abuses facilitated by the power of the gun. But it remains to be seen whether a deal can come to fruition and – if a treaty is finalised – how effective it will be. “There is always a chance that it will fail and we will have nothing,” the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs told Al Jazeera.

Most agree global rules governing the trade are necessary. Only 52 governments around the world have laws regulating arms brokers – less than half of those impose criminal or monetary penalties for illegally trading weapons.

The UN estimates the repercussions from armed violence worldwide totals $400bn annually. “Without adequate regulation of international arms transfers and high common standards to guide national export decisions, the human tolls and financial costs will remain colossal,” the UN said

Big business

About 75 per cent of the global trade in conventional weapons is controlled by the five permanent United Nations Security Council members: the United States, China, Russia, France and the United Kingdom.

There is a surge in the sales of weapons. The volume of worldwide arms transfers from 2007-11 was 24 per cent higher than during 2002-06, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.


875 million: Number of small weapons such as revolvers, assault rifles and sub-machine guns in circulation, according to the Small Arms Survey

300,000: Estimated number of people who die in violent conflict each year – 90 per cent of whom are killed by small arms fire, according to the UN

US$3.4bn: Value of arms bought between 2000 and 2010 by countries subject to arms embargoes

US$400bn: The cost of armed violence worldwide each year, according to the UN

US$17bn: Cost of conflicts fuelled by imported weapons in Africa in 2007 – almost the same as it received in foreign aid 


Amnesty said the main goal of negotiations is to create a treaty that requires states “to undertake a rigorous case-by-case risk assessment of each proposed arms transfer”. Signatory countries will have to scrutinise who will ultimately use the weapons and for what purpose. If a chance exists that the arms could be used to commit human rights violations, a deal doesn’t get done.

Civil society groups want nations held accountable through legally binding rules. Countries that sign the treaty must pass domestic laws to ensure their weapons companies abide by the treaty. That, some observers say, could derail a global agreement.

“The Arms Trade Treaty won’t stop all illicit arms transfers, but it has the potential to significantly and positively change behaviour by requiring states to put in place basic regulations and follow common sense criteria that reduce irresponsible arms transfers and hold arms suppliers more accountable for their actions,” Daryl Kimball of the US-based Arms Control Association wrote in an e-mail.

Opposition to the treaty in the United States is led by the powerful National Rifle Association, which sees the treaty as a threat to Americans’ Second Amendment right to bear arms. But proponents say it will have no impact on a country’s internal gun sales.

“The US government already controls the export and import of small arms and light weapons and their ammunition,” said Kimball. “It is in the interest of the United States to ensure that other states are required to follow similar practices.”

Lurcrative trade

Some advocates worry that the lucrativeness of the arms trade may impede progress towards a treaty. The US is by far the preeminent dealer of conventional weaponry. From 2000-08, the US peddled arms worth $166bn. Russia, the second largest supplier, sold weapons for $74bn during the same period, according to a Congressional Research Service study. 


“The proliferation of, and ease of access to AK-47 and similar assault rifles… continues to result in mass suffering, with no end in sight.”

– Oxfam report: “The AK-47: The World’s Favourite Killing Machine”

Ted Bromund, senior research fellow at the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, questioned the effectiveness of a global treaty in a report for the conservative Heritage Foundation think-tank. “In reality, many UN member states supply arms to terrorists as a matter of national policy. Signing a treaty will not make them virtuous.” 

UK-based Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) is also sceptical about the treaty. It said the weapons industry needs to be abolished outright.

“CAAT believes that it will have little impact in stopping the flow of weapons, or preventing the devastating impact of the arms trade,” Kaye Stearman told Al Jazeera. “CAAT believes that there is no such thing as a responsible arms trade and that the ATT will add greater legitimacy to the existing arms trade.”

Proponents argue, however, that even without strong enforcement mechanisms, a treaty will force nations and the arms industry to think about the consequences before selling weapons – which ultimately could save people’s lives.

The easy flow of the Kalashnikov assault rifle (also known as an AK-47) is a prime example of light weapons used to commit human rights violations that a stringent treaty could curb, civil society groups say.

Between 50 million and 70 million AK-47s are in the hands of soldiers, rebels, terrorists and criminals around the globe. An Oxfam report titled “The AK-47: The World’s Favourite Killing Machine” notes the spread of the Kalashnikov goes largely unchecked by governments, “threatening the lives and safety of millions as weapons fall into irresponsible hands”.

“The proliferation of, and ease of access to AK-47 and similar assault rifles around the world, more than any other small arm or light weapon, continues to result in mass suffering, with no end in sight,” the report said. 

Source: Al Jazeera