Stephanie Koorey is a Canberra-based academic consultant.
Earlier this year I noted there were moves afoot on conventional arms control. However, in New York the UN Conference on the proposed Arms Trade Treaty concluded on 27 July without the proposed treaty being adopted.
Non-government advocates of the treaty mostly blamed the US; countries including Egypt were worried about importing countries being disadvantaged; China and Russia had last minute concerns; and others put on a brave face and clawed back some diplomatic space by claiming the world would have a treaty, maybe not this July but certainly before the year was out.
Why did the plan fail? There is speculation that because it is an election year in the US, the Administration wants to avoid anything controversial regarding the UN and firearms control. It's also likely that Russia, which is Syria's major arms supplier, would be somewhat nervous about turning the spotlight on the Syrian bloodbath. Plus there's the fact that the Treaty required required 100% support to get through.
Al Jazeera gave the Treaty negotiations excellent analysis and coverage and noted the three main stumbling blocks were ammunition, existing military contracts and how to measure human rights abuse; all reasonable concerns for both exporting and importing states in terms of their capacity to monitor and manage.
However, facts are again being sacrificed to the raw emotion that this topic attracts. The Treaty will not have any jurisdiction over legal gun ownership in the US, yet this fact continues to be lost in a flurry of outpourings by Second Amendment advocates. This is not unexpected and perfectly in keeping with the alarmist tactics used for years by US gun manufacturers and recreational gun users, including the National Rifle Association.
In the face of such objections, the human rights and development NGOs must be careful not to lose their moral high ground and their ability to lobby effectively using strong and informed arguments.
The executive director of Oxfam Australia, Andrew Hewett, said on ABC Radio National Breakfast recently that the international trade in arms was 'by and large, out of control'. This paints a somewhat inaccurate picture of the trade in conventional arms. Many countries have stringent export controls in place, particularly for large weapons systems, which are pretty hard to sneak across borders and into other countries. Smaller weapons are indeed more difficult to monitor, and easier to transfer illicitly, but let's not conflate issues and lose clarity.
More worryingly, the only figure Hewett mentioned was an annual amount of $1.2 trillion, which implied this was the value of the conventional arms trade. The respected SIPRI database places the global value of the international trade in arms at a more modest $50.5 billion (2007 figures). The US Congressional Research Service came up with a lower figure of $31 billion for the same year.
That figure of $1.2 trillion is closer to the world's military expenditure. Taking the SIPRI definition of 'military expenditure', this includes all government spending on defence, including operations and personnel as well as research and development. It also includes military pensions and peacekeeping costs. Mr Hewett has unfortunately conflated government defence-related expenditure with conventional arms transfers,and this is quite simply incorrect.
Let's hope the NGOs at the Review Conference on the UN Program of Action, which starts on 27 August, stay more focused.
Photo Flickr user Defence Images.