The Hidden Benefits of an Arms Trade Treaty

Indian activists of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) hold placards during a peace march in New Delhi on February 15, 201
Indian activists of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) hold placards during a peace march in New Delhi on February 15, 2010, The demonstrators demanded the regulatation of transfer of conventional weapons and expressed support for the 2006 United Nations decision to begin drafting an Arms Trade Treaty, aimed to promote responsible transfers of weapons globally to prevent human rights violations. AFP PHOTO/ Manpreet ROMANA (Photo credit should read MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Earlier in my diplomatic career, I spent four years in the Philippines working on a peace process between Islamic militants and the Philippine government. The roots of the conflict were complex and I won't go into them here, but I remember visiting the affected region and meeting people -- women and children -- who were left permanently scarred by the conflict emotionally, psychologically and physically. The wounds from armed violence like this kill one man, woman or child every minute worldwide. Two-thirds die in countries not officially in conflict. And up to three-quarters of grave human rights abuse involves the misuse of weapons.

The moral case for action is overwhelming. That is why negotiators from states around the world are in the middle of a marathon two-week negotiating session to finalise a new Arms Trade Treaty aimed at preventing the flow of illicit arms into the hands of militias, terrorists and criminals that threaten the security and prosperity of people around the world.

An Arms Trade Treaty won't solve all the complex issues that lead to criminality, conflict and terrorism, but by galvanising states around the world to clamp down on illicit sales of weapons, it is a vital part of the solution.

Saving lives and reducing human suffering are the most important reasons to work towards an effective Arms Trade Treaty. But there are other reasons that are, perhaps, less obvious.

First, it would protect our soldiers and diplomats world-wide. This means a lot to me personally. I served for a year in Iraq. The compound where I lived and worked was targeted almost daily by rockets and mortars fired by militias who wanted to impose their particular values on everyone in the city. I remember vividly diving to the ground hoping that I wouldn't be hit -- as well as the shock of learning that my British and American colleagues, military and civilian, had been wounded and killed. Of course, a comprehensive Arms Trade Treaty would not have entirely prevented those attacks, but it certainly would have made it more difficult for such groups to carry out their campaign. Whether in Afghanistan, Mali or elsewhere in the future, our soldiers' lives could be saved as a result.

Second, we must protect our friends and allies in tough neighbourhoods. The Middle East is a case in point. Poorly regulated and illegal flows of weapons from abroad destabilise societies, states and regions. An effective treaty will impede arms supplies to terrorist organisations and governments that would use them to exacerbate regional tensions or conflict. But it will not impact our ability to export arms to our allies and would fully recognise a state's right to access the arms it needs for its legitimate defense needs.

Third, a comprehensive Arms Trade Treaty would reduce arms flowing into ungoverned areas and to the terrorists and criminals that flourish in them. When terrorists benefit from the easy access to weapons, they threaten the security of not only the countries where they reside but also their neighbours. Look at what has happened in Mali over the past year, where armed militants have sought to create an Islamic state by force. Christians and others were forced to leave their homes. Oil workers were kidnapped. Some were killed. An effective Arms Trade Treaty would make such incidents less likely in the future.

It is also about promoting development and helping lift people out of poverty. Violence fuelled by unregulated or illegal weapons diverts resources from schools and healthcare. It undermines sustainable development, erodes stability and robs millions of their future. It is estimated that armed violence has cost Africa some $18 billion a year, equivalent to the total aid it receives.

Finally, an arms treaty would help our defence industries. The defence industry in the U.S. and UK are already subject to stringent export controls, from being put at a disadvantage to competitors who do not have qualms about supplying arms that could be used to exacerbate conflict or abuse human rights. An effective Arms Trade Treaty would level the playing field for US and UK exporters by bringing others closer to the rigorous standards that we already apply.

There are valid concerns that this treaty must be workable and shouldn't impose unnecessary burdens on legitimate trade and use of arms. These need to be taken seriously. Last week Secretary of State John Kerry explicitly stated that the U.S. would only support a treaty that "does not impose any new requirements on the US domestic trade in firearms or on U.S. exporters." The good news is that the treaty being negotiated in New York won't do that. Ultimately, an effective Arms Trade Treaty will benefit the countless victims of terrorists and repressive regimes, not to mention U.S. and UK troops, diplomats and contractors working in dangerous places. The only people who will not reap any rewards are those we wish weren't armed and those who supply them.