Editorial: Ensuring the effectiveness of the Arms Trade Treaty

The United Nations General Assembly has approved the Arms Trade Treaty, which seeks to establish common standards for international trade in conventional arms. This is certainly a historic step.

It is estimated that some 500,000 people fall victim to such weapons worldwide each year. These lives are lost not only in regional conflicts and civil wars but also in crackdowns by authoritarian regimes. The fact that there is now a framework which aims to curtail the taking of innocent lives, as well as prevent the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, is of great significance.

Ensuring that this treaty is effective becomes a heavy responsibility of the international community.

The treaty covers a wide range of weapons, including small arms, tanks, missiles, fighter aircraft, and battleships. Signatories are obliged to impose a prohibition on the import, export, and brokerage of weapons if they may be used to attack or kill civilians or to perpetrate “crimes against humanity” as stipulated by international law.

In light of current conditions, where so-called “merchants of death” go unchecked and hold sway over a black market for arms, the treaty’s passage is a huge step forward.

At the same time, there are limits to the treaty. Regulations on parts and ammunition are lax. And it is difficult to encroach on matters of military cooperation between nations. But among other things, concern over how the treaty can be effectively implemented is hard to dispel.

Negotiations for the treaty began in 2006, led by a group of nations that included Japan and the United Kingdom. From the start, though, it was clear that different countries had different degrees of enthusiasm for the idea.

Countries in Central and South America and Africa, where the inflow of weapons is a serious issue, expressed strong support for the treaty, but arms-exporter nations maintained a cautious stance. The talks, which sought to gain consensus from all nations, broke down.

Eventually, sponsors of the proposal were able to overcome the opposition by bringing the treaty to the U.N. general assembly, where decisions are made by majority vote. Since more than 150 nations voted in favor of the pact, ratification by 50 countries, which is necessary for the treaty to take effect, will not be far off. However, some points that lacked agreement may become stumbling blocks.

Russia and China, among others, abstained from voting in the general assembly, which is tantamount to declaring that they will not support it. Efforts must continue to be made to encourage them to ratify the treaty.

Special attention should be paid to China, whose weapons exports have been increasing sharply. There are some indications that China, in addition to earning foreign currency, is seeking to enhance ties with developing nations which are suspected of violating human rights.

The United States, which is the largest exporter of weapons, voted in favor of the treaty. But its domestic conditions are less than secure. The National Rifle Association, a lobbying group, is strongly opposed to the treaty. If the U.S. procrastinates in ratifying the pact, momentum for these regulations may be lost.

In Africa and the Middle East, there have been numerous instances of bloody fighting among civilians since the Arab Spring. Even before the treaty takes effect, the international community should exercise self-restraint when it comes to the arms trade.

The focal point should be the civil war in Syria. Russia is behind President Bashar al-Assad and continues to sell him arms. Meanwhile, Turkey and other nations are expanding their arms shipments to anti-government forces, and the United States is reportedly involved as well.

First of all, from a humanitarian perspective, the nations of the world must always be prudent about supplying weapons. But some in the weapons industry in developed countries are hoping that the new treaty will help expand their business opportunities by improving the market’s transparency. This stirs a feeling of discomfort.

Japan played a central role in concluding the treaty. But the government is starting to gradually relax its Three Principles on Arms Exports, partly because of pressure from the business community. It is clear that the Japanese government hopes to promote the defense industry’s expansion abroad.

As with treaties designed to ban anti-personnel mines and cluster bombs, the Arms Trade Treaty originated in efforts to save lives by international non-governmental organizations. The present attitude of the Japanese government is not in line with the spirit of the original intention.

(Originally published on April 4, 2013)