UN talks seek to curb global weapons trade

By Jerome Taylor

At first glance they look like any other bullet. A 540mm sliver of brass built for one purpose - to kill humans. But bullets tell a story. The markings around the circular primer at the base of the casings reveal they were manufactured in Iran - a country supposedly under an international arms embargo.

Since 2010, these cartridges have flooded into west and central Africa. Some are bought on the black market, peddled by soldiers looking to make some cash on the side. Others have been illegally smuggled to countries known for gross human rights abuses.

Iranian-made bullets have appeared in the hands of both rebel and government forces in the Ivory Coast, a country supposedly banned from importing new weaponry.

Virtually every major commodity is regulated by international agreement. Yet there are no global conventions or treaties prohibiting the arms trade, valued at US$411 billion ($512 billion) in 2010.

Even when arms embargoes are in place, dealers find loopholes to smuggle their way into supposedly closed markets. Only 52 countries have laws regulating arms brokers - and fewer than half of those have criminal or monetary penalties for illegal brokering.

But that could change. Starting today, delegates gather in New York for a month of negotiations at the United Nations in an attempt to agree to a global Arms Trade Treaty.

The product of more than a decade of lobbying by human rights groups, it is the best chance the world has had to bring an oversight to an industry that lives on death. Countries such as Britain, Mexico, France and Germany are pushing for a "bullet proof" treaty that would cover almost every aspect of the arms trade. Campaign groups hope to see a clause that would ban the sale of any weapons to states where they are likely to be used for human rights abuses.

However, countries such as Russia, China, Iran, Cuba and Pakistan are opposed to human rights clauses, and the inclusion of components and ammunition. The US is also opposed to including ammunition after pressure from its powerful gun lobby.

"Guns are useless without bullets," said Anna Macdonald, head of arms control campaigning at Oxfam. "It is essential that the sale of ammunition is included in the treaty."

The UN estimates that up to 300,000 people die in violent conflict each year - 90 per cent killed by small arms fire. As delegates meet in New York the current conflict in Syria will be on everyone's minds.

"Syria will be the elephant in the room," said one Western diplomat. "Somehow we have to come away with a treaty that stops regimes like [the Syrian President, Bashar] al-Assad's from re-arming while they continue to kill their own people."

James Bevan, an investigator with Conflict Armament Research, said the treaty would work only if it took a firm line and was fully implemented. He believed the international community could make more of an impact on the arms trade by enforcing current laws. But many human rights groups say the next month still represents the best chance in decades to make a palpable impact on the global weapon trade.

"Despite the incredible damage and number of deaths and human rights violations it causes, there are more effective controls on the trade in bananas than on the global arms trade," says Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK.

- Independent

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