Oscar Arias wrote this opinion piece to accompany the First Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty (Cancún, Mexico, August 24-27th, 2015).
Twenty-eight years ago this month, an indigenous woman stood in the plaza in Guatemala City, watching as the presidents of Central America walked out into the street after signing the Peace Accords that would end the civil wars in our region. When I reached her, she took both my hands in hers and said, “Thank you, Mr. President, for my child who is in the mountains fighting, and for the child I carry in my womb.”
I don’t need to tell you that I have wondered about that woman’s children ever since. I never met them, but those children of conflict are never far from my thoughts. Those children, and others like them, were the audience of the peace treaty I had drafted. They were its true authors, its reason for being. Theirs were the human lives behind every letter we put onto the page, every word we negotiated.
“Throughout modern history, we have, in effect, told the children of the world that while we will regulate the international trade in food and textiles and any other product under the sun, we are not interested in regulating the international trade in deadly weapons”For the presidents who signed the treaty, achieving peace was the most important challenge of our lives. For those children, it was life or death.
But our victory for peace in 1987 did not fully safeguard those children, or millions more like them, because the weapons that had poured into our region during our conflicts did not disappear when the white flag was raised.
For years after arms suppliers channeled weapons to armies or paramilitary forces during the 1980s, those weapons were found in the hands of the gangs that roamed the countryside of Nicaragua, or of teenage boys on the streets of San Salvador and Tegucigalpa. Other weapons were shipped to guerrilla or paramilitary groups, as well as drug cartels in Colombia, ready to destroy yet more lives.
We had walked into a new era of peace, but the weapons of the past were shackles at our feet.
As I watched this happen in my region, I also learned that the international trade in arms, free from any regulations whatsoever, was feeding unnecessary violence like this all over the world.
Throughout modern history, we have, in effect, told the children of the world that while we will regulate the international trade in food and textiles and any other product under the sun, we are not interested in regulating the international trade in deadly weapons, even when those weapons are being sold to dictators or other violators of human rights, or placed directly into the hands of child soldiers.
So, in 1997, I began my call for a treaty to regulate the trade of arms. I was quickly joined by fellow Nobel Peace laureates, and then by friends and allies all over the world. On Christmas Eve 2014, the International Arms Trade Treaty finally took effect. And now, in Cancún, Mexico, between Aug. 24 and 27, the first-ever Conference of Parties to the Treaty is being held so that its implementation can move forward.
I never thought I would see this day; I am delighted that I have. I am also filled with new determination to make sure that the treaty lives up to its potential.
For the treaty is a powerful tool, but it will only protect our children if we give it teeth. It will only protect our children if we implement it fully. It will only protect our children if we ensure that consensus is not used as an excuse for inaction.
I urge the 72 nations that have ratified the treaty to define an alternative to consensus so that one party cannot paralyze implementation. The perfect is the enemy of the good – and in this case, with human lives depending on our swift resolution of pending issues, inaction would be anything but perfect. It would be a travesty.
We must also continue to raise our voices in the face of tremendous opposition from groups that continue to oppose the treaty, arguing that it infringes upon national sovereignty. Quite the opposite is true: no sane definition of national sovereignty includes the right to sell arms for the violation of human rights in other countries. A nation willing to carry out such an act is not defending itself, but rather infringing upon the sovereignty of other nations that only want to live in peace.
We must also avoid using the danger and terrorism in the world today as an excuse for lack of regulation. Cicero’s famous phrase “silent enimleges inter armas” – among arms, laws are silent – has often been used to support the mind-set that the law does not apply during times of war.
But it is at times of war that the law must speak most bravely. When weapons are circulating freely into the worst possible hands, the law must speak. When the lives of the innocent are placed in danger by an absence of regulation, the law must speak.
And we must speak, today – in favor of this crucial treaty, and its swift and effective implementation. If we do, then when today’s children of conflict look to us for guidance and leadership, we will no longer look away in shame. We will be able to tell them, at long last, that we are standing watch for them. We are on guard. Someone is finally ready to take action.