LONDON — The world’s top two weapons exporters, the United States and the United Kingdom, remain at odds over an international arms trade treaty favored by the United Nations.
The United Nations is proposing new international regulations over the import, export and transfer of conventional weapons. The United States opposes the treaty on the grounds that its own export controls are tougher than those suggested by the United Nations
The U.K. government, meanwhile, has endorsed the treaty as a necessary means to curtail terrorists’ access to weapons, as well as arms sales that continue to fuel regional wars in developing nations.
Proponents of the treaty contend that current nation-unique regulations are outdated because they don’t take into account the globalization of the weapons industry.
A “patchwork quilt” of national controls, which differ widely from one country to another, cannot effectively deal with non-state terrorist organizations that seek to acquire arms on the black market, said a panel of military contractors and arms trade experts based in the United Kingdom.
“A purely national regime doesn’t prevent irresponsible or illegal arms transfers by others,” said John Howe, vice president of Thales in the U.K. “The only way of preventing abuse is to have an international regime.”
Moreover, variations between national export regulations are causing confusion in the defense industry, said Howe. “At present, there is great complexity arising in part from the fact that different states trading with each other have different rules.”
John Duncan, U.K. ambassador for multilateral arms control and disarmament, said an international arms trade treaty would establish legally binding controls on the arms trade in line with an agreed set of high standards.
“It’s an opportunity to put the international arms trade on a more secure and responsible footing, where we can all be more confident that legitimate needs are met and arms do not fall into the wrong hands,” he said.
In October, the U.N. General Assembly discussed a draft resolution submitted by the United Kingdom, Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan and Kenya. Early next year, a group of government experts will convene to discuss the treaty’s underpinning issues and propose the parameters for regulations that the U.N. will negotiate in 2009.
“We need to convince countries that it is in their national interest to do this,” said Rees Ward, director general for the U.K. Defence Manufacturers Association.
Concerns have been raised by the defense industries, particularly in nations that export large quantities of defense-related technologies, that such a treaty would harm companies seeking to do business internationally. Countries with growing defense industries, such as Russia, China, India and Pakistan, abstained in last year’s U.N. treaty resolution vote.
For the United Kingdom, which exports more than $10 billion in arms per year — accounting for 20 percent of the global export market — an international arms trade treaty will bring economic benefits to industry and government, said Duncan.
He added that the treaty should not harm legitimate and responsible arms dealing and should not include prohibitions on domestic and national controls. The treaty, he said, should ensure an effective mechanism for enforcement and monitoring.
U.K. arms exports rank second only to that of the United States, which was the sole nation that voted against last year’s U.N. treaty resolution in part because it believes it already has proper controls in place. British officials disagree with the U.S. stance.
“Export control based upon a notion of national manufacturing is unsustainable in the 21st century,” said Duncan.
An international arms trade treaty would serve as a complement to existing regulatory regimes, like that of the United States, he said.
“A single, effective global standard will provide a great degree of certainty to governments, end users and suppliers. This can only be a benefit to everyone,” said Duncan.
Countries with weak export controls would initially require assistance in implementing the system, he said.
Enforcement of the treaty may prove to be one of the biggest stumbling blocks for the initiative. One reason why the United States has balked at the treaty is because the State Department believes that multilateral enforcement would be unrealistic.
“The enforcement idea will no doubt be discussed,” said Duncan.
“I’m confident that you’ll end up with a treaty across the board,” said Paul Lester, chief executive of U.K.-based VT Group. “But it can become a political tool to prevent arms trade as well, and we’ve got to watch that.”
Please email your comments to GJean@ndia.org