Arms Trade Treaty long overdue, as new research shows billions spent on illicit weapons deals by states under embargo

Published: 2nd May 2012

Oxfam says lack of global rules on arms trade is main factor for embargo violations

More than $2.2 billion worth of arms and ammunition have been imported since 2000 by countries operating under arms embargoes, according to new figures released today by international humanitarian agency Oxfam.

The figures are contained in a new report, called The Devil is in the Detail, showing the extent to which states have been flagrantly flouting the 26 UN, regional or multilateral arms embargoes in force during this period. Oxfam is calling on the international community to put an end to decades of irresponsible arms deals which devastate people’s lives, by agreeing a set of legally-binding laws when diplomats meet to draw up a new Arms Trade Treaty in July.

Ongoing flow of weapons into Syria

The report also demonstrates how the lack of robust and legally binding obligations on the sale and transfers of arms has allowed the ongoing flow of weapons into Syria. In 2010, for example, Syria imported $167 million worth of air defense systems and missiles as well as $1 million worth of small arms and light weapons, ammunition and munitions. Some of these arms have played a central role in the Syrian government’s crackdown on protesters in which the United Nations estimates 8,000 people have been killed this year and last.

Existing embargoes “easy to break or ignore”

Oxfam’s Head of the Control Arms Campaign Anna Macdonald said: “We are on the brink of a historic moment but the challenge is to ensure the new Treaty is really strong. It must unambiguously stop arms transfers where they would fuel conflict, poverty or human rights abuses.

“Existing arms embargoes are far too easy to break or ignore. The lack of international regulation means that states under embargo have been importing whatever weapons they choose with impunity."

In the last decade and beyond, several states have broken embargoes and continued to trade weapons on a massive scale including Myanmar ($600 million between 2000-2010), Iran ($574 million between 2007-2010) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo ($124 million between 2000-2002).

Arms trade lacks robust and universal rules

The aid agency wants to see the new treaty place strict, unambiguous and legal obligations on states to control the global trade in arms. The report says the global trade in most consumer goods – including bananas, coffee and cocoa – is tightly-regulated but there are currently no legally-binding, robust and universally applicable criteria governing the transfer of weapons across borders.

Instead, there is an intricate patchwork of regional and sub-regional agreements but this lacks structure and coherence allowing states to continue importing and trading weapons despite UN or other types of embargoes. As weapons slip through the net, Oxfam believes thousands of lives are being lost and livelihoods destroyed.

Macdonald adds: “How can the sale of bananas be more tightly-controlled than the sale of machine guns? It just doesn’t make sense. This situation is indefensible and it’s long overdue for countries to hammer out a legally-binding agreement on weapons transfer.”

“A weak treaty would be worse than no treaty”

To be effective, the new Arms Trade Treaty must include legally-binding criteria that prevent arms transfers where there is a substantial risk they will be used to violate international human rights or humanitarian law or undermine development.

Macdonald says: “The new Arms Trade Treaty must be robust enough to have a genuine impact on the lives of tens of thousands of innocent civilians suffering from armed violence every single day. This is the chance of a generation to truly make a difference.

“Our position is clear: a weak treaty would be worse than no treaty at all as this would merely legitimize the existing flawed system.”

Read more

Download the report: The Devil is in the Detail: The importance of comprehensive and legally binding criteria for arms transfers

Read the blog: 100 days before the Arms Trade Treaty talks – the state of play

Learn more: Control Arms: Why we need a global Arms Trade Treaty

How can the sale of bananas be more tightly-controlled than the sale of machine guns?
Anna Macdonald
Oxfam's Head of the Control Arms Campaign

Notes to editors

Contact information

Zahra Akkerhuys on +44 (0)1865 472498 or +44 (0) 7525 901932