The U.N. organ tasked with maintaining international peace and security harbours a serious conflict at its core.
The Security Council's five permanent members (P5) – United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France – along with Germany, are the world's six leading arms exporters, often shipping weapons used to perpetuate violence across the globe.
Meanwhile, over 150 member states have gathered at U.N. headquarters, from Mar. 18-28, to negotiate an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). If signed into law, this unprecedented rulebook may help regulate the international flow of arms, and curtail the arms' potential for abuse.
According to Amnesty International- a human rights group that has journeyed two decades for a legally binding ATT – P5 weapons exports have fuelled a throng of human rights violations.
But some members of the Security Council are tough negotiators, hoping to water down the treaty and continue profiting from its loopholes. The U.S., China and Russia, for example, prevented the treaty from moving forward when the ATT was last negotiated in July 2012.
"They've got two interests at hand,” said Widney Brown, senior director of international law and policy at Amnesty International.
“One is all the profits they're making from their engagement in traded arms… the other is their responsibility as permanent members of the Security Council for maintaining international peace and security,” she told IPS.
U.S. locks down on ammunition talks
In the world's newest country, young boys strap old and durable AK-47s across their chest.
“You just have to oil it, load a bullet, and they become killing instruments,” said Geoffrey Duke, director of the South Sudan Action Network on Small Arms.
Duke noted that there are enough weapons already in South Sudan to fuel hostilities for the next 30 years.
“Including bullets in the Arms Trade Treaty is easier said than done, but controlling bullets will save lives,” he said.
Djimon Hounsou, a Beninese-born activist and Academy Award nominee, visited the U.N. to express his support for a strong ATT.
“I come here not as a movie star,” said Hounsou, who starred in “Blood Diamonds”, which takes place in Sierra Leone's Civil War.
“I come here as a son of Africa,” said Hounsou, noting also the horrors he witnessed in his real life travels to South Sudan.
“We owe it to ourselves to do something about this,” he added. “If they cease to be relevant there, we will cease to be relevant here.”
The U.S. – largely influenced internally by the National Rifle Association, a powerful gun lobby – is the main roadblock against regulating ammunition on a global scale.
Goldring of CSS said, “The U.S. already tracks ammunition on exports in great detail, and there's absolutely nothing that would prevent it from being able to agree to this treaty.”
She told IPS, “It's in the U.S. interest for everyone to have an export control system and to have better awareness of what's crossing countries' borders.”
MacDonald of Oxfam told IPS, “Nigeria said that 300 million Africans want to see ammunitions in this treaty… It's a very powerful statement, and I think it reflects the sentiment from that continent and many others who are pushing very hard to make sure that ammunition is controlled as much as weapons.”
She added, “It's very important that when governments regulate guns, they also regulate bullets, and when they regulate tanks, they also regulate the shells.”
Duke said that without bullets, AK-47s would transform into “walking sticks”.
“In this negotiation, (the P5) are being called out,” said Brown. “In the end, are they going to be willing to put profits aside and create a strong treaty?”
Anna MacDonald, head of arms control at Oxfam, told IPS that nations leading the charge for a strong ATT include Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia, New Zealand, and “to a certain extent” the U.K. and Germany.
Asked about the U.K. – a P5 member and one of seven co-authors of the 2006 resolution that brought ATT talks to the U.N. – MacDonald said, “We do think the U.K. is (being) pressured from other members of the P5 to compromise their position.”
However, proponents of a strong ATT have gathered momentum. MacDonald noted that in the first few days of negotiations, at least 116 member states signed onto a joint statement pushing for a strong ATT.
Additionally, at least 69 member states signed for the ATT to include ammunition, and over 40 signed for sustainable development.
And as of Thursday afternoon, 59 countries signed onto a joint statement for the ATT to address gender-based violence. “That one is snowballing,” said MacDonald.
She noted that the same countries that pushed for an outcome document in the just-concluded 57th session on the Commission on the Status of Women – which focused on ending violence against women and girls – continued pushing for gender-based violence to be addressed in the ATT.
“It really demonstrates cross-regional majority support to get the text right,” she said.
Natalie J. Goldring, senior fellow in the Center for Peace and Security Studies (CSS) at Georgetown University, told IPS, “We're seeing countries work in coalitions much more effectively than they did in July.”
Goldring explained that the “so-called sceptics” who were making rhetorical statements during negotiations in July are now approaching ATT talks more productively.
These member states include Pakistan, Iran, and “to a certain extent” India and Algeria.
“They're still sceptical,” added Goldring, “and some of the changes would undermine the treaty in various ways and shouldn't be accepted, but they're engaging in a different way.”
Asked about China, MacDonald of Oxfam told IPS, “China began with a very negative attitude towards the arms trade treaty; they've abstained in resolutions in the past few years.”
This time around, China is more cooperative in the negotiating process, said MacDonald, but Beijing is still pushing for certain loopholes.
“For example, there is a loophole in the current text which would allow weapons if they are ‘gifted' to not be subject to the same assessment and risk assessment process,” explained MacDonald.
“If you say it's a gift, it's not assessed. This is currently the way in which China transfers quite a lot of weapons to Africa, so it's quite important that gifts are subject to the same procedures,” she added.
On Russia, MacDonald said, “We'd be quite surprised if Russia signed onto this treaty. However, we certainly hope they won't block it.”
Many delegates and civil society leaders argue that they would rather have a strong treaty signed onto by a majority of member states rather than a watered down treaty agreed upon by consensus.
Even if a strong treaty is not agreed upon during this round of negotiations, “there's a provision in the latest resolution… that will allow it to go to the General Assembly and be voted through,” explained MacDonald.
“Weak treaties are rarely improved over time. Even if they achieve universal signature, they don't transform situations,” she explained.
“Strong high standards will affect behaviour even if there are states that don't sign on,” she added, noting that governments do not like being held accountable by other governments for “flouting high customary standards”.
Goldring added, “The history of negotiations and treaties at the U.N. is one in which countries have had grave difficulty improving those treaties and making them robust, once they've been agreed,” noting that the decision between consensus and strength is still not an easy choice.
Governments, however, can still sign onto a treaty at a later time.
Goldring explained that a strong ATT would call on member states to monitor and assess what weapons are entering, passing through and leaving their borders, including transactions made by private companies.
Brown of Amnesty International told IPS, that a strong ATT should set up international norms, as well as a peer mechanism for monitoring those norms.
“Because (arms exporters) are competing for the same market, there will be a lot of pressure among them to abide by these norms when they're there,” she explained.
“What we have now without any norms is a race to the bottom,” she added, citing that exporters sell arms to whomever they want.
If norms are established through the ATT, than “if you think of (exporters) as salespeople in a market, they're going to pressure each other to all follow the agreed rules,” she noted.
After a week of gruelling negotiations, from 8 AM to midnight, a new ATT draft treaty is slated to emerge on the eve of Friday, Mar. 22, said MacDonald.
This draft is expected to contain significant changes, and it precedes a third draft on Wednesday, Mar. 27. Civil society members and U.N. delegates will pour over its text, paragraph by paragraph, for one final week of negotiations.