Can a New United Nations Arms Trade Treaty Reduce Gun Deaths?

Source: Arms Trade Treaty Monitor

This month, representatives from more than 100 governments and 100 Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are meeting at the United Nations in New York to work out a new global arms trade treaty by a July 27 deadline. The goal is to establish common standards for the import, export, and transfer of conventional arms and ammunition, a business worth about $55 billion a year.  A report by the British government estimates that at least 400,000 people are killed by illegal small arms and light weapons each year while armed violence is responsible for more than 740,000 deaths annually.  Many more people are injured.  A recent  report  by the International Action Network on Small Arms and Amnesty International concluded  that the “use of firearms in non-conflict settings is the most prevalent form of armed violence and the form that results in the most deaths and injuries. This fact underscores the importance of adopting an approach to addressing armed violence that will encompass violence outside of armed conflict settings.”


The UN meeting, three years in the works, has the opportunity to reduce this death toll by moving the illegal gun trade into the open with verifiable international standards that are enforced by national governments. 


Several obstacles could block a successful outcome.  First, a few governments and some powerful NGOs like the National Rifle Association (NRA) oppose the inclusion of small arms.  On July 11, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre told the UN meeting, “The only way to address NRA’s objections is to simply and completely remove civilian firearms from the scope of the treaty. That is the only solution. On that, there will be no compromise.”


And in the usual NRA-gun industry tag team, Richard Patterson, the managing director of The Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute, one of the NGOs participating in the deliberations, testified “that hundreds of millions of citizens regularly use firearms for the greater good” and that a “treaty that does not support the positive use of firearms is doomed to cause more harm than good.”


In an alliance that show that guns make strange bedfellows , several states, including China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Venezuela, and Iran also oppose inclusion of small arms in the treaty.  In a statement released last week at the UN meeting, the government of Iran echoed Wayne La Pierre: 

NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre speaking at a meeting in Florida last year.

In our view, a well-defined and universally accepted scope for a potential Arms Trade Treaty would be a determining factor in the acceptance of its provision.  In this regard, we are not in favor of the inclusion of missiles, Small Arms and Light Weapons and ammunition in the scope of the treaty.


According to The Hill, proponents of the treaty say the NRA’s concerns are unfounded since the treaty has no impact on the domestic gun trade and leaves national governments with the power to enforce the treaty.  These treaty supporters assert that the exclusion of civilian weapons would gut the effort to keep deadly arms out of the hands of terrorists, criminals and rogue regimes.


Another conflict is about the role that NGOs can play in the meeting.  For many governments, national security concerns may trump reducing deaths from illegal guns.  Thus, keeping the meeting open can help to keep the spotlight on health and human rights.  Yet last week, treaty organizers moved to close half the sessions to all but government delegates. Anna MacDonald, the Head of Control Arms Campaign for Oxfam explained the objections: 

The arms trade is often a shadowy business with arms deals being conducted in isolation, behind closed doors. The Arms Trade Treaty is attempting to shed some light over this trade and ensure that we have transparent and robust laws to prevent arms ending up in the wrong hands. Thanks to a tiny minority of countries it now seems like negotiations on the Arms Trade treaty will also become secretive.


This secrecy may make it harder to keep the focus on reducing deaths from the illegal arms trade. As  Frank Jannuz, from Amnesty International USA and  Daryl G. Kimball of the Arms Control Association  argued in a recent op ed in The Christian Science Monitor:

To succeed, the assembled ambassadors must put sons over guns and daughters over slaughter. At a minimum, the new treaty should require states to withhold approval for the international transfer of arms in contravention of UN embargoes or when there is a substantial risk the items will be used to commit serious violations of human rights. Despite its strong, pro-human rights rhetoric, the Obama administration has not yet endorsed such a formula.


If the UN members at the meeting agree on a final document by July 27, the treaty would still need to win a two-thirds majority in the Senate to be binding on the United States.  The NRA has vowed to prevent that.