International security will be at the top of the agenda at the UN General Assembly meeting this week in New York. For many leaders, enhancing security involves spending more money on weapons for themselves and their allies. The five years since 9/11 have seen a boom in the conventional weapons trade, accompanied by a new willingness to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses committed in the pursuit of the war on terrorism. Yet the focus on the production and distribution of weapons to allies, whatever their human rights record, does not enhance global security.
International terrorism and nuclear proliferation, in particular, are not problems that can be solved simply by a show of military strength by the United States, or any other country. Too many governments still think in terms of this kind of Cold War-era strategy when trying to address the security challenges of today.
The Cold War-mindset endorsed proxy wars, leading the United States to train and equip mujahideen like Osama Bin Laden in its fight against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. The Cold War-mindset promoted arming regimes with questionable human rights records for ``strategic" reasons, resulting in US forces eventually having to face enemies armed with US-made weapons in Panama, Somalia, Haiti, and Iraq.
What has become clear is that in order to advance global security, nations must unite to prevent the transfer of arms to dictators and human rights abusers. This is not done by looking to the false security of military buildup, but by strengthening the safeguards of international law.
There have been international treaties to control the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons for decades, but until now the world has remained unconvinced about the global implications of an uncontrolled trade in conventional weapons. As a result, such weapons as handguns and attack helicopters are bought and sold every day with no comprehensive treaty to regulate the dangerous trade.
The loose patchwork of national and regional regulations means it is all too easy to supply weapons to embargoed destinations, to parties engaged in armed conflict, to those who use them to violate human rights, or to those who spend vastly more on their militaries than on meeting critical development needs. The inadequacy of arms controls contributes to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people each year. It is estimated that an average of 1,000 people are killed by small arms alone every day, most of them in the developing world.
The best fix available for this deadly hole in global security is the comprehensive Arms Trade Treaty, which has been proposed before the United Nations. The principle behind the treaty is simple: require all countries not to transfer weapons to states, groups or individuals if there is reason to believe that the weapons will be used to violate human rights or existing international law.
The treaty is supported by more than 50 governments. Not surprisingly, the biggest opposition comes from those with the most money to lose. Russia, the United States, France, China, and the United Kingdom -- the five permanent members of the Security Council -- account for roughly 80 percent of the world's arms sales, and of these nations, only the UK and France have expressed support for the treaty. A mix of outdated strategy and financial interest has undermined the security goals that these states have pledged to pursue.
But they have a chance to switch to the right course. Next month, the Arms Trade Treaty will be put to a vote in the First Committee of the UN General Assembly. The nations of the world should put the moral gain of humanity above the monetary gain of a few, and recognize that lasting stability is best advanced not by instruments of death but by mechanisms of law.
An Arms Trade Treaty would make legal ties out of the moral ties by which we already know we must abide. Only then will we be able to effectively respond to the security challenges of our era, and thereby genuinely make our world a safer place.
Óscar Arias, a Nobel Peace laureate, is the president of Costa Rica.
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