Will ATT turn swords into ploughshares?

By Ameen Izzadeen
A landmark treaty regulating the global arms trade came into force this Wednesday, but questions remain over its implementation. The treaty is a small first step in the million mile journey that will take us to a weapon-free world or a world where weapons are used judiciously within the framework of law. Had such a treaty been in existence with the ratification of all nations, perhaps we would not have seen last week’s school massacre in Peshawar, Pakistan.
The treaty, championed by Australia during its term on the United Nations Security Council, requires countries that ratify it to establish national regulations to control the transfer of conventional arms and components, and to regulate arms brokers. It prohibits the transfer of conventional weapons if they violate arms embargoes or if they promote acts of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes, and if they could be used in attacks on civilians or civilian buildings such as schools and hospitals.
But countries are not driven by idealistic principles that call for a weapon-free world where disputes between states and within states will be sorted out through talks or at global tribunals. Nations follow policies that seek to enhance their economic, political and military power.
Underscoring this reality is the failure of the world’s biggest arms exporters – the United States, Russia and China — to ratify the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) which has been hailed as a milestone by the United Nations and campaigners seeking to stop weapons sales to dictators, terrorists and human rights abusers.
There is little hope that the US, the world’s number one arms exporter which accounts for 50 per cent of the global arms sales, would ratify the treaty. According to Amnesty International, the value of the secrecy-shrouded global trade in small arms and ammunition is approaching $100 billion annually. The figures for all arms exports – small and heavy weapons – are four times this figure. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the world’s top 100 arms producing companies racked up 402 billion dollars in weapons sales and military services in 2013.
SIPRI figures also show that arms business is big business for all five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Given the big money and the US meddling in many global conflicts, it is unlikely that the US would ratify the treaty. Besides, any ratification requires approval by two-thirds of the Senate, which is now controlled by the Republicans who overwhelmingly oppose arms control.
So US weapons kill combatants and non-combatants. They kill Palestinians who stand up for their right to statehood. They kill Egyptian demonstrators who call for an end to dictatorship. They continue to cause chaos in Libya where armed groups are fighting for the control of the country, three years after the death of Muammar Gaddafi. They fuel the war flames in Syria. Almost all rebel groups in Syria use US-made weapons. They are supplied both directly and indirectly. Early this year, Congress approved weapons supplies to ‘moderate’ rebel groups in Syria. Most of these weapons have fallen into the hands of the powerful Islamic State and al-Nusra. In additions, Arab Gulf nations channel small arms they buy from the US to the Syrian rebel groups they sponsor. In April this year, the Islamic State rebels came into possession of armories of US-made weapons after it overran Iraqi army positions.
In Afghanistan, too, US weapons are used by all actors of the conflict. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980, the United States armed the Mujahideen with sophisticated weapons, including anti-tank missiles and shoulder-fired Stinger air missiles. After the withdrawal of the Soviet troops in 1989, most of these weapons fell into the hands of the Taliban which wrest control of country in 1996.
If this is the part of the distressing US record, the record of Russia, the world’s number two arms seller after the United States, is no better. Russia has not even signed the treaty.
Russia has been arming rebels in eastern Ukraine, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Hit by fresh waves of Western sanctions, Russia is likely to increase its arms sales. According to SIPRI, Russia’s arms sales have shot up by 20 per cent last year. Russia is the biggest arms supplier to Syria. It recently signed multi-billion dollar deals with India to provide fighter jets, military helicopters and equipment.
Although Russia has earned billions of dollars from arms sales, the heart-rending life story of the man, who invented the famous AK 47 or the Kalashnikov automatic rifle, calls for disarmament.
“If my rifle took lives, does it mean that I, Mikhail Kalashnikov, aged 93, a peasant woman’s son, an Orthodox Christian in faith, is guilty of those people’s deaths, even if they were enemies?” he asked in a letter to his church just months before he died on December 23, 2013.
Kalashnikov is the favorite weapon of freedom fighters, terrorists, rebels, militants and other non-state actors the world over and it is estimated that since the rifle was invented in 1949, more than 100 million of AK-47 had been produced. Based on the Kalashnikov model, the Chinese have produced their T-56, a cheaper version, which is popular among armed forces of developing counties and rebel groups the world over.
Kalashnikov in 2006 wrote a letter to the UN urging disarmament. He said: “I am no stranger to the pain of losing comrades in battle. But the tragedy of innocent lives lost at the hands of terrorists is beyond compare.”
On Tuesday, hours before the ATT came into force, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on some 129 countries that haven’t ratified the treaty to do so “without delay.” In South Asia, only Bangladesh has signed the treaty.
Given the realpolitik-driven nature of international relations, the ATT will not turn all the swords of the world into ploughshares. There are loopholes in the treaty. For instance, it does not call for the collection or the destruction of weapons in the hands of non-state actors. Neither does it outlaw any specific weapon. There is no tracking process.
Despite these loopholes, the treaty is likely to set new norms in international law. Associate Professor Philip Alpers from the University of Sydney says, “Legislation is rarely a panacea; this treaty will not immediately bring world peace. But as long as it is enforced, the ATT has a good chance of affecting the worst trouble spots in the world – Africa, Latin America, South Asia – quite quickly.”
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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