Urgent call for tighter rules on arms trade on eve of final treaty negotiations

Published: 12th March 2013

Draft Arms Trade Treaty text littered with loopholes which need fixing urgently to save lives

More than 325,000 people are estimated to have lost their lives through armed violence since negotiations for a treaty to regulate the global arms trade for the first time ground to a halt in July last year, say Oxfam and Saferworld, part of the Control Arms Coalition.

The Control Arms Coalition calls on world leaders to urgently adopt robust rules on international transfers for arms and ammunition as conflicts continue to destroy lives worldwide. They say the continued loss of life underlines the urgent need for a strong Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) to be agreed during a fortnight of intense diplomatic negotiations, which start at the United Nations, in New York, on Monday.

In a new report, called Getting It Right: The pieces that matter for an Arms Trade Treaty, Oxfam and Saferworld set out the major gaps in the current text of the draft ATT – with suggestions of how diplomats attending the UN negotiations could fix them. Loopholes in the draft text mean that transfers made under existing defence contracts between Russia and Syria, for example, would not be covered by the treaty.

The missing pieces for a strong arms treaty

Oxfam’s Head of Arms Control Anna Macdonald says: “More than one person dies each minute through armed violence. Too much blood has been shed because of the unregulated trade in arms and ammunition. History has shown that strong treaties create high international standards and bring about change, even for non-signatories. Diplomats need to fill in the missing pieces in the draft text, and make sure they agree a treaty that will save lives.

“We have been fighting for a global agreement on the arms trade for years now and the time has come to seal the deal. A treaty to bring the arms trade under control is long overdue – but it must be a treaty with teeth. It is time for states to stand up for a treaty that will make a difference.”

In the new report, the Control Arms Coalition members highlight the loopholes in the existing draft text which means the treaty could fail to prevent arms being provided to human rights abusers who commit mass atrocities, including genocide.

A major weakness in the current draft text is that the sale of ammunition and parts and components are only partially-covered. The global ammunitions industry for small arms and light weapons is worth $4.3 billion, with 12 billion bullets produced each year. The report calls for tough controls on their transfer.

"Without ammunition, the guns fall silent."

“Ammunition is literally the fuel of conflict,” said Saferworld’s Head of Arms Transfer Controls Roy Isbister. “Without ammunition, the guns fall silent,” he added.

The absence of tight controls over the trade in ammunition is expected to become a major bone of contention during the negotiations. The US has expressed opposition to ammunition sales being covered fully by the scope of the treaty; however, others, including many African states say a treaty that does not regulate the sale of ammunition will not be worth the paper it’s written on.

The organizations say the draft treaty’s threshold to assess risks of human rights and humanitarian law violations before agreeing on a transfer is legally ambiguous. The draft treaty sets a threshold of “overriding risk” that states could interpret as allowing national security or other interests to override the obligation not to transfer arms likely to be used to commit serious human rights abuses. The NGOs believe that this loophole could be used to justify arms getting into the hands of warlords and human rights abusers.

Closing the loopholes

Also of concern is that according to the current draft, states may be able to claim that transfers made as part of a separate defence agreement (such as Defence Co-operation Agreements) are not covered by the Treaty. This would mean that transfers made as part of existing defence contracts between Russia and Syria, for example, could still be interpreted as “legal”, despite risks of weapons being misused for human rights violations.

Another loophole highlighted by the report is that the current text could be read by states to mean that it only covers the transfer of weapons that are sold, rather than those transferred via gifts, loans or military aid. Countries including India are opposed to this clause being amended.

Roy Isbister said: “A strong ATT could make a huge difference to the lives of millions of nnocent people around the world. But the loopholes in the current text could actually make things worse, by giving legal cover to bad practice. It’s critical that states refuse to settle for a Treaty that fails to protect lives and livelihoods and instead put all their efforts into delivering a treaty that gets it right.”

It is time for states to stand up for a treaty that will make a difference.
Anna Macdonald
Oxfam's Head of Arms Control

Notes to editors

The 2011 Global Burden of Armed Violence Report of the Geneva Declaration Secretariat finds that some 526,000 people on average were killed annually between 2004 and 2009.  This translates to 1,440 casualties per day (or one per minute); and multiplied by the 226 days between Saturday July 29 2012 and Monday March 11 2013 adds up to our estimate of 325,440 deaths.

Oxfam and Saferworld campaigners will be in New York for the duration of the negotiations, between March 18 and 28. For full reaction to the negotiations and to arrange interviews contact the press officers on the numbers below.

Read the report: Getting it Right: The pieces that matter for the Arms Trade Treaty

Contact information

To arrange interviews with Oxfam’s Head of Arms Control Anna Macdonald and Saferworld’s Head of Arms Transfer Controls Roy Isbister please contact:

  • Zahra Akkerhuys, at Oxfam, in the UK, on +44 1865 472498 or +44 7525 901932
  • Louis Belanger, at Oxfam, in the US, on +1 (917) 224 0834
  • Elizabeth Bourne, at Saferworld, in the UK, on +44 207 324 4646

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