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Commentary

UN Small Arms Trade Treaty Necessary but Unlikely

UN Small Arms Trade Treaty Necessary but Unlikely

Guns seized from local cartels in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Source: Houston Chronicle

Against the backdrop of a possible nuclear Iran, the question of arms control always arises. As the IAEA and the UN struggle to control the states, such as Iran, that hold supposed dangerous nuclear aspirations, one thought seems to remain lost in the shuffle amid these ominous nuclear war discussions: the idea of creating an agency to control small arms. Since the two atomic bombs dropped by the United States on Japan in 1945 to rapidly end the prolonging of World War II, no other country has used the enormous power that nuclear weapons can unleash, yet millions continue to die daily at the hands of militant groups and governments, utilizing the deadly force of small arms.

Fierce debates are rarely held regarding the supply, use or sale of small weapons on an international scale, except with the use of arm’s sanctions to address the occasional violent conflict.  The idea of creating an international entity whose direct responsibility would be monitoring, limiting and controlling the flow of arms on the global market has been lightly discussed for many years. The sale of arms is a common theme, as many states lack the abilities or the monetary resources for arms development, and therefore must procure the weapons through other nations to meet their needs.

All states that are party to the United Nations (UN) Charter are provided the basic right to defend themselves under article 51, which states, “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations.” It cannot be denied that this right sets a precedent for nations to acquire arms for self-defense.

The idea of creating an oversight office to enforce stricter arms trade seems packed with good intentions. However, a more important argument in the grand scheme of the world weapons market is that this idea would not only be impractical, but universally unpopular. As with any issue that takes center stage, the first implication that is examined would be the economic facet of such an organization. The reality is that the major suppliers of arms globally remain the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. These five powers make up an overwhelming pipeline of arms trade to smaller nations, supplying over $31 billion worth of arms in 2004 — and this number is extremely conservative due to the fact that many nations often do not report the majority of their arms deals. Arms trade is big business, and supplying other countries with weapons development will interfere with much needed revenues.

Just examine the case of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, recently signing the largest arms deal in history, a reported $60 billion. Placing such a huge economic infringement on these world powers would create major obstacles and political battles in order for them to permit the regulation of such sales outside of state control. This leads to the next point of state sovereignty.  Since nearly every nation on earth is a member of the UN, and the Charter directly states the right to defend against ‘armed attack’, than restricting this basic national right would be infringing on the legal treaty that the UN Charter encompasses.

Limiting these rights will place the decision of the quantity of arms needed for defense, directly in the hands of a third-party international actor. Distinguishing the amount of regulation from country to country will open the door for accusations of bias and therefore, the idea would fail to gain ground. These limitations would expose the hard truth regarding conflicting allies used by the major superpowers; for example, the aforementioned US support for Saudi Arabia, and the fact that Iran has close ties to Russia. This would cause major rifts if either ally conglomerate was treated differently, or a specific nation with ties to one of these powers was singled out by the new organization. Political infighting would be common practice, making the proposed organization ineffective.

Finally, while the regulation of arms trade may affect the trade and transfer between nations, especially if a nation like Syria is guilty of enormous human rights atrocities, the illicit trade will continue untarnished and may even flourish further, as the demand for arms from restricted nations and violent non-state actors (VNSA) would skyrocket.

These groups utilize weapons to obtain tribute from the population, gain recruits, destroy faith in the government, or for removing or enacting revenge on a rival people. These motives will not be suppressed due to the inability or restriction on the inflow of legal arms trades. Take the three major conflicts that have been occurring in Africa over the last decade in Somalia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In each of these conflicts weapons were supplied to rebels in one of three ways, illegal smuggling by neighboring governments, seizure of weapons from former government depots, or through illicit arms sales by non-state actors.

The fact that all three of these countries had an active arms trade embargo and were still able to procure weapons proves how ineffective such actions and embargoes can be.  The idea of securing an international organization to regulate the sale of arms in a last-ditch effort to prevent severe human rights and humanitarian violations is a noble one. However, the problem is not as simple as supply and demand. Denying a weapon from a person does not necessarily mean that they will not exploit civilians.

The simple fact remains that a weapon can be derived from almost anything and therefore regulating the weapons is not the solution. In addition, due to the massive trade revenue that is involved, especially spread among the major global powers, increasing regulation is not feasible. Finally, as with anything, the restriction of illicit goods does not necessarily result in decreased use, it often leads to more violence in an attempt to procure the weapons at any cost. Therefore, the proposal of even assuaging the slightest human suffering with arms restriction, while good-hearted in nature, is simply not pragmatic.

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