A new effort at multilateral regulation of firearms is set to begin Monday at U.N. headquarters in New York. The name for the 10-day diplomatic meeting – Final Conference – expresses hopes for a positive result. That was not the case in July 2012, when the resistance of the United States sidetracked negotiations. Under review will be a draft Arms Trade Treaty, Article 1 of which sets forth 2 goals:
► ‘[E]stablish the highest possible common standards for regulating or improving the regulation of the international trade in conventional arms’
► ‘[P]revent, combat and eradicate the illicit trade in conventional arms and their diversion to the illicit market or for unauthorized end use’
In so doing, treaty supporters hope to:
► ‘Contribute to international and regional peace, security and stability,’
► ‘Prevent the international trade in conventional arms from contributing to human suffering,’ and
► ‘Promote cooperation, transparency and responsibility of States Parties in the trade in conventional arms…’
The term “conventional arms” is defined in Article 2 to include many categories of weapons that all would agree ought to be subjected to close regulation: battle tanks and armored combat vehicles, large-caliber artillery, combat aircraft and attack helicopters, warships, missiles and missile launchers. It also includes one category of arms – “small arms and light weapons” – which the U.N. Office on Disarmament Affairs blames for much suffering:
‘The majority of conflict deaths are caused by the use of small arms, and civilian populations bear the brunt of armed conflict more than ever. Also, small arms are the dominant tools of criminal violence. The rate of firearms-related homicides in post-conflict societies often outnumbers battlefield deaths. These weapons are also linked to the increasing number of killings of UN employees and peacekeepers …
‘Small arms facilitate a vast spectrum of human rights violations, including killing, maiming, rape and other forms of sexual violence, enforced disappearance, torture, and forced recruitment of children by armed groups. More human rights abuses are committed with small arms than with any other weapon. Furthermore, where the use of armed violence becomes a means for resolving grievances and conflicts, legal and peaceful dispute resolution suffers and the rule of law cannot be upheld.’
These contentions are echoed by many human rights organizations; an example is Amnesty International’s focus on how small arms harm girls and women.
The U.N. Office estimates that there are more than 875 million of these weapons, with as many as 8 million more being made each year. At stake is a global and globalized market. “More than 1,000 companies in about 100 countries are involved in some aspect of small arms production,” according to the Office, “with significant producers in around 30 countries.”
The inclusion of small arms and light weapons in the Arms Trade Treaty has raised some concerns in the United States, notwithstanding the treaty’s emphasis on illegal trade and guarantees of noninterference in domestic matters. In the face of such concerns, a July 2012 White Paper by the American Bar Association maintained that the treaty would not impinge on rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. A position statement by the U.S. Department of State – one that does not mention the Final Conference – may be found here.
Arizona State Law Professor Aaron Fellmeth wrote in October that National Rifle Association lobbying seemed to likely to impede U.S. ratification even if the treaty were to be adopted. Time will tell if post-Newtown sensibilities have changed that calculus.
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