An International Arms Trade Treaty – the gun debate we should be having.

Photo: Oxfam International
Photo: Oxfam International

Guns have been big in the news recently.  After the horrific shootings in the US state of Connecticut in December, media debate has been heavily focused on American attitudes to guns, and the potential for the country to enact stricter gun control laws.  Particularly here in the UK, there is almost a fascination with how these kinds of tragedies can continue to happen again and again without any significant changes being made to laws which often allow dangerous people to own such weapons – I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read or heard an exasperated ‘Americans and their guns’ in the past month. 

But why is the only gun debate we’re having set in America? When we hear about governments and armed militias committing atrocities in so many different countries, why aren’t we thinking about where their guns came from, and how they were so easily available?

The global arms trade is thought to be worth around $70 billion per year, and of course it’s not only the US that has a significant stake in it – the UK is also among the top five suppliers of arms worldwide.  (This gives you a pretty interesting overview of the international arms trade, although it only displays the official data).  But the sale of weapons is one of the few areas of international trade that lacks coherent international regulations.  The absurdity of having international trade rules on the sale of fruit, but not on the sale of lethal weapons, has been something Amnesty International has pointed out in their long running campaign to control arms.

In July last year, the United Nations held a conference on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in New York, where 193 countries attempted to negotiate a Treaty to control the international arms trade, to ensure that lethal weapons aren’t used by governments to oppress their own people, in serious human rights violations, and to contribute to the massive 2000 people who are killed every day by guns and armed conflict.  In 2006, following campaigning from Amnesty and Control Arms, states at the UN finally voted to begin working towards drafting an ATT.  One of the major goals was to explicitly place human rights at the centre of the regulation of arms, so that transactions cannot be made if weapons are likely to be used in or contribute to serious human rights violations.

However, after six years, and a real effort at agreement from many countries, the July negotiations ended with only a Draft Treaty Text being decided after several states, in particular the US, said they needed more time.  Despite strong commitment shown by many, including the UK government (who took an impressively positive stance on agreeing a meaningful treaty after a great campaign response from Amnesty UK members), the progress needed to make a real difference to such a dangerously unregulated international industry was not made.

Thankfully, it doesn’t have to end there.  In late 2012, a large majority of states voted to resume negotiations to agree a Treaty text in March this year.  That leaves less than two months for states to get together and take concrete steps to change the damaging effects of an unregulated trade in dangerous weapons.  Perhaps it’s time for us to focus debate on something that we can genuinely influence and something that affects the lives of people across the globe.  Of course the US gun debate is interesting, often frustrating, and worthy of our attention.  But are we being distracted form the true scale of the ‘gun problem’, and the lives that are lost to it on a daily basis?  12 billion bullets are manufactured globally every year.  It’s about time we had clear rules on with whom and where they end up.

Emma Hunter

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