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Arms Trade: A Lethal Business and an Urgent Treaty

While Americans debate President Barack Obama's gun control plan, a much bigger debate is going on worldwide that few Americans are aware of—whether to restrict the global trade in conventional weapons.

There are more laws governing the international trade of bananas and coffee than of arms, despite the fact that 1,500 people are killed daily from armed violence and six out of 10 human rights abuses involve light weapons.

March will be the last chance for United Nations (UN) Member States to fill this legal gap and set up global rules for the trade in weapons by negotiating and adopting a long awaited Arms Trade Treaty.

Although President Obama’s administration has come out in support of the treaty, the administration faces strong opposition from the National Riffle Association (NRA), which has vowed to fight the adoption of a treaty on the grounds that it would not protect Americans Second Amendment rights. Yet, the treaty applies only to international arms transfers and not to internal gun laws in signatory countries. The NRA’s opposition represents not the voice of American citizens, but that of an arms industry that directly profits from gun sales at home and abroad.

UN treaty negotiations, which began in July 2012, have focused solely on the role of states, forgetting a major stakeholder in the arms trade: companies. Human rights are increasingly the business of corporations, and not addressing the role of industry in the treaty is a mistake.

Companies are the lifeblood of the global arms trade, with European and U.S. companies dominating the industry. In 2010, the total sales of the top 100 arms companies reached $ 411.1bn. Of these companies, 44 were U.S.-based, and together accounted for 60 percent of all arms sales that year.

The arms trade isn’t just big business; it’s too often a lethal one, too. The Russian-owned arms company, Rosoboronexport, has been Syria’s main weapons supplier since 2007. In the absence of global regulation or UN arms embargo, the company has been able to operate freely, and Syria’s arms imports have since increased more than five times compared to the previous five-year period. Human Rights Watch, an international NGO, argues that the company could be considered complicit in the crimes against humanity carried out by the Syrian government.

Shipping companies dominate the international transport in weapons and many of them have been caught shipping weapons from or destined to states under UN sanctions. In 2009, for example, the United Arab Emirates seized a ship bound for Iran carrying 10 containers of North Korean-manufactured arms disguised as oil equipment. The ship was owned by an Australian subsidiary of a French company and sailed under a Bahamian flag; a perfect illustration of the complex jurisdiction involved in policing the arms trade, made all the more difficult by the lack of global laws regulating companies operating in the trade.

Like shipping companies, private security companies undermine regulations on arms transfers. The American-owned Blackwater, for example, provided guns as gifts to the King of Jordan and exported ammunition to Iraq and Afghanistan without U.S. government approval. Conversely, governments can use these companies to undermine arms embargoes. In 2012, the UN noted that member states are failing to respect the arms embargo on Somalia by allowing private security companies in their jurisdiction to train Somali forces accused of human rights abuses. By effectively regulating the global arms trade, loopholes of this kind can be addressed.

Human rights, although traditionally the responsibility of States, are now also the business of companies. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights—unanimously adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011—set that in stone. The principles provide a roadmap for states on how to ensure that companies—including those operating in the arms trade—respect human rights both at home and abroad. They state that governments have the responsibility to reference the Guiding Principles when negotiating on issues of international trade to ensure that all countries speak one human rights and business language, helping to minimize the human rights impacts of global trade.

When UN Member States began to negotiate the treaty, most of them failed to reference the Guiding Principles. March, therefore, will be the last chance for governments concerned with protecting human rights to fill the private sector gap in the draft treaty and live up to the standards set by the principles. To do this, UN Member States, including the United States, should reference the Guiding Principles in the treaty’s preamble, and then approve the treaty. Doing so will ensure that international law regulating the arms trade is clear and robust, helping to close the loopholes and grey zones in which companies engaged in the arms trade operate, and giving the heart of the treaty—safeguarding human rights—a fighting chance of success.