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Taking Aim at Weapons Trade
Published on Saturday, October 7, 2006 by the Toronto Star / Canada
Taking Aim at Weapons Trade
Like land mines, conventional arms must be curbed
by Mary Robinson

Remember the excitement nearly 10 years ago when the treaty to ban land mines was signed in Ottawa? What began as a small, grassroots campaign had achieved a legally binding international agreement to banish the scourge of anti-personnel mines from the planet. October offers a similar opportunity to tackle the horrific excesses of the arms trade. Later this month, the UN will vote on a resolution to start work on an Arms Trade Treaty, exactly 10 years after it was asked to vote to support a ban on land mines.

It is vital that governments support this resolution, and demand that the Arms Trade Treaty has human rights at its heart. Nuclear, chemical and biological weapons have been controlled by international treaties for decades, yet there is still no comprehensive, legally binding treaty to regulate sales of conventional weapons, from AK-47s to fighter planes.

Land mines are one of the few conventional weapons that are effectively controlled. Yet small arms alone are estimated to kill 1,000 people every day, most of them civilians.

In too many conflict zones, I have seen first-hand how the easy availability of weapons fuels serious human rights abuses. In Rwanda, small arms such as the AK-47 contributed to the scale of the genocide. In Sierra Leone during the civil war, it was clear that the proliferation of weapons had led to an epidemic of rapes and mutilations at gunpoint. And in East Timor in 1999, the militia's access to guns allowed them to terrorize the population and, when the referendum went in favour of East Timorese independence in August of that year, to kill them.

The uncontrolled spread of weapons is destroying lives, communities and opportunities around the world. And the problem is getting worse. In the five years since Sept. 11, 2001, increasing numbers of weapons have been supplied to regimes that have poor human rights records in the name of the so-called "war on terror."

The resolution on an Arms Trade Treaty has been proposed by the governments of Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan, Kenya and Britain.

They have made a bold step, which should be welcomed.

However, it is vital that the final text of this resolution references international human rights law. Rights must be at the heart of an Arms Trade Treaty, otherwise it will not prevent arms being sold to human rights abusers; and so it won't effectively save lives.

The campaign for an Arms Trade Treaty is supported by 20 Nobel Peace Laureates and international groups such as Oxfam International, Amnesty International, and the International Action Network on Small Arms. The treaty these groups are calling for would be based on a simple principle: no weapons for those who would violate international law. Such a treaty would ban governments from selling weapons when there is a clear risk that those weapons will be used for human rights abuses, to fuel conflict or to undermine development.

There are those who say such a treaty could never work: that the world's leading arms producing states won't sign it or that it won't make much difference anyway. The experience of the landmine treaty puts the lie to this argument.

Several of the world's biggest military powers still haven't ratified the Ottawa Treaty, yet it has saved thousands of lives over the past decade.

Equally important, it has changed the behaviour of every government.

Few countries now openly trade land mines as they did before the treaty came into force.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, conflict has killed an estimated 3 million people since 1998. There, the UN carries out regular weapons collections. Guns made in Belgium, China, Egypt, Germany, France, Russia and the United States have been found in the hands of rebel groups.

The uncontrolled arms trade is a global problem. Every country that manufactures, sells, or transfers arms is involved.

Governments may not see the devastation their weapons sales cause, but we must not turn a blind eye. The civilian populations in areas of conflict, notably women and children, are crying out for a global solution to this problem.

Mary Robinson, a former UN high commissioner for human rights, is president of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative and honorary president of Oxfam International.

Copyright Toronto Star Newspapers Limited

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