More than 65 countries have signed the landmark treaty regulating the multibillion-dollar global arms trade and the US announced it will sign soon, giving a strong start to the first major international campaign to stem the illicit trade in weapons that fuel conflicts and extremists.
The announcement on Monday by US Secretary of State John Kerry that the US — the world’s largest arms dealer — will sign is critical, but the treaty’s ultimate strength rests on support by all major arms exporters and importers. While the treaty was overwhelmingly approved on April 2 by the UN General Assembly, key arms exporters, including Russia and China, and major importers, including India, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Egypt, abstained and have given no indication that they will sign it.
Signatures are the first step to ratification, and the treaty will only take effect after 50 countries ratify it.
Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, a key treaty backer, predicted that there would be 50 ratifications “within slightly more than a year — but the real test is, of course, getting those who still have doubts or who have not made up their minds, to sign on and ratify.”
The treaty will require countries that ratify it to establish national regulations to control the transfer of conventional arms and components and to regulate arms brokers, but it will not control the domestic use of weapons in any country. It prohibits the transfer of conventional weapons if they violate arms embargoes or if they promote acts of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes, and if they could be used in attacks on civilians or civilian buildings such as schools and hospitals.
What impact the treaty will have in curbing the global arms trade — estimated at between US$60 billion and US$85 billion — remains to be seen. A lot will depend on which countries ratify it, and how stringently it is implemented once it comes into force.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told a special event marking the signings that the treaty shows that “the world has finally put an end to the ‘free-for-all’ nature of international weapons transfers.”
“The treaty ... will make it harder for weapons to be diverted into the illicit market, to reach warlords, pirates, terrorists and criminals or to be used to commit grave human rights abuses or violations of international humanitarian law,” Ban said.
He urged all countries — especially major arms-trading countries — to sign and ratify the treaty, saying “the eyes of the world are watching arms traders, manufacturers and governments, as never before.”
At the Monday morning session at the UN headquarters in New York, 62 countries signed the treaty, and in the afternoon five more signed, bringing the total to 67, about one-third of the UN’s 193 member states, which UN disarmament chief Angela Kane called “impressive.”
The seven co-sponsors of the treaty — Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan, Kenya and the UK — issued a joint statement at a news conference on Monday morning, saying they were “heartened” that on the first day the treaty is open to signature so many countries were signing.
“It is vital that the treaty comes into force as soon as possible and is effectively implemented,” the cosponsors said.