The UN General Assembly voted an overwhelming 154-3 on April 2 to approve a
blockbuster treaty aimed at regulating the massive global arms trade in
After a decades-long struggle, for the first time,
arms sales will be linked to the human rights records of the buyers.
treaty says that sales will be reviewed to scrutinize if those buying the
weapons will use them to break international humanitarian law, facilitate
genocide or war crimes, or aid in terrorism or organized crime.
indicates that nations will need to file public reports expounding on their arms
deals in detail.
With such a lopsided vote to regulate weapons, one might
expect the lion and the lamb to lie down tomorrow. At the very least, this
should make it harder for countries like Russia to argue that their arms sales
to Syria are legal under international law, and thus prevent “future Syrias,” as
human rights group Oxfam International stated.
But international treaties
and law are never that simple and there is a long list of formidable obstacles
in the way.
First, it will take years to begin implementing the
This treaty requires 50 ratifications to go into effect, meaning
additional unpredictable votes by nations’ legislatures. Predictions are that
this treaty will go into effect “fast,” which could mean “only” a delay of a few
years. But the bottom line is the treaty’s 154-3 vote has not made it into
Next, there are the loopholes.
It focuses specifically on
“sales,” meaning crafty arms sellers can do an end-run around the treaty by
making transfers as gifts, loans, leases or aid.
The treaty only covers
exports. It does not remotely touch imports – more like a chasm than a loophole,
especially since states can be “creative” with defining exports and imports when
trade involves a series of exchanges.
Then come some of the problems that
go to the very heart of the treaty’s chances of being effective.
landslide vote obscures the fact that some of the most important actual arms
dealer states, China, Russia and India, along with 20 other nations,
It is much less likely that a treaty will be effective if
China, Russia and India ignore it, and by refusing to vote “yes,” these nations
have avoided any treaty obligations, while signaling dissatisfaction with the
Russia reportedly was concerned about how “genocide” would be
defined, probably worried about its significant sales to some of the worst human
The US voted in favor, but faces almost certain
blockage in the Senate where National Rifle Association opposition has rallied
over 50 senators to publicly oppose the treaty. 67 out of 100 votes are
necessary for the treaty to be ratified.
This leads into two
interconnected fundamental questions with the treaty.
Regarding the first
fundamental issue, enforcement, the treaty has no provision whatsoever to compel
enforcement for violators besides embarrassing them publicly.
interconnected issue is whether the UN treaty system is capable of being a
platform for getting its own worst members to stop their most problematic
Connecting the two issues, some treaty detractors argue it is
a conceptual non-starter to expect a system which without a second thought
involves every country, including all the countries whose regimes survive on
receiving illicit arms and butcher their own people, in solving the issue and
providing for enforcement.
They say that a better path would be for
powerful like-minded nations to negotiate a treaty with fewer loopholes, put it
into effect and then try to use it to pressure others into
Yet, proponents of the treaty say that it and its
overwhelming international support are historic and that all is far from
First, the treaty will make an astounding amount of new information
about arms sales – always hush hush in the past – public. While it may be cliché
that “information is power,” some studies of nations’ behavior shows that even
violators do more self-policing and less violating of rules when confronted with
greater transparency and hard evidence.
Second, there is a hope that the
treaty will put public pressure even on nations who refuse to ratify it. Some
proponents predict that this pressure will go beyond being informal, as often
treaties with enough countries ratifying them become considered new customary
rules of international law.
For example, while only about two-thirds of
the world’s nations ratified the Rome Statute establishing the International
Criminal Court, and the US has not, most scholars and countries have
acknowledged that in only 10 short years, many of the statute’s definitions as
to crimes have become canonized new principles of international law.
US, Israel and other countries which did not ratify the treaty often say they
try to voluntarily abide by many of its principles and regularly quote its
provisions in debating international criminal law issues.
notes that the major treaty banning landmines is also considered a substantial
success, even without the signatures of the US, China, Russia and
Third, whether it becomes official international law or not, if
most nations starts to comply with its provisions, new norms will be interjected
into arms trade negotiations at the bilateral level.
ratifying the treaty will sometimes be forced to observe its provisions if most
buyer-nations are committed to those provisions and incorporate those provisions
into their negotiating and contracting process.
Fourth, and specifically
addressing China’s objections, it is key to note that Beijing was on the smaller
drafting committee, meaning it had significantly input, which may make it harder
to completely walk away.
Regarding the US, even if the Senate does not
ratify the treaty, US President Barack Obama can use his executive power to
issue orders to essentially compel compliance.
Fifth, the treaty may have
strong indirect on-the-ground impact.
Amnesty International has pointed
out that even in cases like Rwanda, where much of the genocide was perpetrated
by machetes, most of the rounding up of people for mass slaughter and Rwandan
resistance to outside intervention to stop the genocide was done with small arms
provided by France, Egypt and South Africa. Limiting these sales could have
reduced and may now reduce the scope of genocides even with weapons like knives,
which the treaty does not cover.
But sixth, and most importantly as
Amnesty International correctly notes, the treaty inserts human rights language
into a treaty that is fundamentally about arms control.
Verbiage in major
international treaties matters and to the extent that arms dealer nations
previously argued that human rights considerations did not enter the arms trade
arena, the rug has been pulled out from under them.
There is no moral or
legal “high ground” for them to hide behind anymore when committing
That does not mean they will not still violate the treaty.
But making human rights language and principles the starting point for
discussing arms deals radically alters the framework for the discussion and
places new burdens on arms sellers to justify their actions in the face of
highly specific damning evidence.
It is absolutely true that new
international law and norms cannot develop without the support of a strong
majority of nation states.
But what critics of the treaty may have missed
is that with all of its holes and abstentions, 153 countries voted in favor of
something, and only 3 had the temerity to vote against. Supporters may not be
ready to give up all of their sovereign arms trading powers overnight, but the
vote signals they have started to sense and become concerned that the arms trade
is sufficiently out of control (the UN says it imposes an “annual burden of
armed violence” of $400 billion on the international community) to begin ceding
some of their independence.
If the Rome Statute is any sign of things to
come, the treaty will be ignored by some, occasionally brazenly, but 10 or so
years from now the arms trade conversation will be transformed beyond