United Nations arms treaty within our reach

The speed of change in today’s world has grown ever more astounding, but the tools of violence, and its underlying causes, remain essentially unaltered. With total arms deliveries in 2012 reaching over $50 billion, we face a threat of mass destruction more deadly than nuclear weapons. Firearms cause more than 300,000 deaths every year that are unrelated to armed conflicts.

And the world is doing little to nothing about it.

We have a rare opportunity to correct this injustice as the United Nations on Friday convenes a Final Diplomatic Conference to pass an arms trade treaty. The goal of this treaty is to establish binding universal standards for the international trade of conventional arms and to close the gaps in existing practices that too often allow weapons to fall into the hands of those who use them to violate fundamental human rights. Our aim is to prevent the destruction of lives.

The push for an arms trade treaty began in 1997 when, having witnessed firsthand the destruction wrought by weapons that poured into Central America during the 1980s, I led a group of seven Nobel Peace Prize laureates in designing an International Code of Conduct on the Transfer of Arms.

The effort gathered momentum in 2006 when 153 U.N. members passed Resolution 61/89, agreeing to convene a diplomatic conference to negotiate an arms trade treaty. Our efforts reached a pinnacle in July of last year when the first Diplomatic Conference was convened to adopt the arms trade treaty.

Unfortunately, that conference failed to pass a final treaty, but the draft text from the conference was used as the starting point for negotiations last week. It is imperative, however, that this text, as well as the first inadequate text the conference has so far produced, not also be the end, as they both suffer from many flaws that need to be corrected before the treaty can have a meaningful impact on the lives of our world’s most vulnerable citizens.

As I said before the July 2012 diplomatic conference, “The challenge before us is not just to get a document signed. The challenge before us is to do justice to victims of violence.”

The irresponsible trade in conventional weapons threatens citizens not just of those nations that have experienced armed violence but also citizens of all nations, and supports human-rights violators and repressive regimes. The arms trade also undermines economic growth: Armed violence and conflict exact tremendous socioeconomic costs by destroying human capital, increasing defense spending and sidetracking public resources away from education, healthcare, and social development.

It has long been both possible and convenient for those who engage in this underregulated trade to ignore its consequences. That can be no more. It never has been clearer that the unfettered arms trade poses a threat to us all, a risk to global security.

Our challenge is to muster the political will to ensure that the treaty is not only legally binding, but also comprehensive enough in the range of weapons and international transactions that it covers to have a meaningful impact. Only with the support of major arms-exporting nations as well as developing and middle-income countries can we prevent some states from acting as loopholes through which irresponsible arms transfers pass unchecked.

Security is a collective goal that cannot be attained as long as conventional weapons continue to be readily supplied to zones overrun by armed violence and to states known to systematically violate the human rights of their citizens. The vast human suffering caused by the under-regulated global arms trade is a tragedy and an injustice. It is unconscionable that goods whose explicit purpose is to kill and injure are spared the regulations that govern every other legitimate industry.

The time has come for all states to invest in our collective security by supporting the Arms Trade Treaty this week and finishing the job now.

Óscar Arias is former president of Costa Rica and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987.

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