A landmark treaty was introduced at the United Nations this week — the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). Sri Lanka has been a victim of this arms trade, both at the hands of state and non-state actors who supplied arms to a guerrilla group that wreaked havoc on this country for three decades. But Sri Lanka [...]


The smoking gun and the UN arms treaty


A landmark treaty was introduced at the United Nations this week — the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). Sri Lanka has been a victim of this arms trade, both at the hands of state and non-state actors who supplied arms to a guerrilla group that wreaked havoc on this country for three decades.

But Sri Lanka is not among the 67 countries that placed their signatures on this treaty aimed at regulating what is estimated to be an annual US$ 60-85 billion global trade. Signing is a prelude to ratification of the treaty. The official version of the Government as given by the Ministry of External Affairs is that it is still “studying” the draft.

There may be compelling reasons not to sign as yet; we have not seen the draft ourselves, but in the absence of any further explanations, one is left wondering why all these countries have signed and we are left scratching our heads. The United States, one of the biggest arms suppliers to the world, has announced it will join in. Among the countries that have opted out so far are other major arms exporters such as Russia and China and major importers such as India, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The United Nations Secretary General has urged all countries — especially major arms trading countries — to sign and ratify the treaty saying, “the eyes of the world are watching arms traders, manufacturers and governments, as never before”.

When the signing opened, 62 countries signed the treaty straightaway and five joined in during the afternoon totalling one-third of the UN membership of 193, prompting the UN Disarmament chief to call it “impressive”. The seven co-sponsors of the treaty are Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan, Kenya and Britain. In a joint statement issued later, the co-sponsors said they were “heartened” that so many countries signed the treaty on the opening day. And that “it was vital the treaty comes into force as soon as possible and is effectively implemented”.

The treaty prohibits the transfer of conventional arms to regulate arms brokers, but it will not control the domestic use of weapons in any country. Some provisions of the treaty might give a clue to Sri Lanka’s reticence on the matter. It also prohibits the transfers of conventional weapons if they violate arms embargoes or if they promote acts of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes, and if the arms could be used in attacks on civilians or civilian buildings including schools and hospitals.

The problem lies with the selective interpretation of UN treaties and conventions by the powerful Western powers. For instance, would such a treaty, if it existed, find the US guilty of arming ‘rebel forces’ in Syria right now?

In the aftermath of World War II, the countries that fought each other bitterly, worked out peace treaties and one-time enemies are the best of friends today. One cannot imagine Germany going to war against France or Britain, or Japan against the US for quite some time more. Yet, some of these countries, including some of those involved in stopping internal wars are the biggest suppliers of arms in the world fuelling other wars around the world.

On the other hand, many not-so-rich nations justify arms purchases on the grounds of national security but their military top brass is riddled with accusations of bribery and sleaze. During Sri Lanka’s insurgency some Air Force Vice Marshals, Navy and Army Commanders and lower rankers as well, were known to have built palatial houses with these kickbacks.

The bigger picture is how conflicts around the world are being instigated and waged by state and non-state actors, including arms merchants. Sri Lanka once had to resort to these arms dealers due to embargoes for geo-political reasons. In desperate situations, it was like going to the black market money changer because the official banks refused to lend.

Though the treaty will make it harder for warlords, pirates, terrorists and criminals to have access to weapons, as the UN Secretary General says, lop-sided geo-political machinations have made it harder for sovereign governments on the wrong side of powerful nations to defend themselves. Meanwhile, no sanctions are imposed on the terrorists who committed human rights abuses or violated International Humanitarian Law. Fortunately for Sri Lanka, Pakistan and China could always be counted on for support.

No doubt the UN treaties and conventions are meant to make the world a better place. Going by the strain with which the world body is trying to come to a consensus on the Ad hoc Committee on Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism – a committee headed by Sri Lankan diplomat Rohan Perera — and the deadlock on the scope of the application about the exemptions of a state’s military, that the Arms Trade Treaty has at least seen the light of day is a positive step.

There is a further dispute in that committee on the definition of a “terrorist”. One man’s terrorist after all is another’s freedom fighter. However, it is learnt that a compromise proposal has been worked out and the UN General Assembly will in all likelihood consider a draft text later this year.

Although a Comprehensive Anti-Terrorism Convention still eludes agreement, the Ad hoc committee chair is on record as saying a willingness to work together offers hope. The decision to continue with the deliberations of this committee and to thrash out outstanding issues is seen as some ‘progress’ in UN committees.

The Sri Lankan diplomat has asked the delegates to consider whether the issues at stake are “so insurmountable that it can take all these years without reaching any agreement”. It only shows what a complex world we live in and the divergent opinions nation-states have on an otherwise simple issue — whether the use of terror to achieve political objectives is justified in any circumstances — or not. The problem seems to be not so much as deciding whether it is good or bad, but the indifference that nation-states have come to practise amidst all the rhetoric on eradicating global terrorism.

One can only hope that the same fate of this committee will not befall the Arms Trade Treaty.  At least the UN is working towards a Utopian world. Even if gets halfway there, it will be a great achievement.

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