World's top weapons exporters unite to sign historic UN arms treaty
World's top weapons exporters unite to sign historic UN arms treaty
US expected to sign later this year as campaigners hail agreement on treaty designed to prevent illegal arms trafficking
• Karen McVeigh in New York
• guardian.co.uk, Monday 3 June 2013 17.03 BST
The first internationally binding agreement to control the multi-billion pound trade in illegal arms was signed by 62 countries at the United Nations headquarters in New York on Monday, and hailed by campaigners as a historic diplomatic achievement.
Countries from every region in the world signed up to the treaty, including some of the top arms exporters, the UK and France, with Germany expected to sign later on Monday. The US, by far the world's greatest exporter and producer of arms, said in a statement it wouldl sign soon. The statement stressed that the treaty would not affect the Second Amendment rights of US citizens, as had been suggested by the National Rifle Association.
The signing comes a month after, the US joined an overwhelming majority of countries at the UN in voting to accept the Arms Trade Treaty.
Ban Ki-Moon, the UN secretary general, said that the world has decided to put an end to the "free-for-all" nature of international weapons transfer. The treaty would, he said, be an effective deterrent to illegal arms flow to conflict prone regions and would make it harder for weapons to be diverted into the illicit market to reach "warlords, pirates, terrorists and criminals" or be used to commit human rights abuses.
"From now on, weapons and ammunition should only cross borders after the exporter confirms that the transfer complies with internationally agreed standards" he said.
The landmark pact prohibits ratifying states from transferring conventional weapons to countries where they know they will be used to commit or facilitate, war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide. It requires ratifying countries to regulate the transfer of conventional arms, parts and weapons and to conduct full risk assessments on arms transfers before they take place.
When the campaign for an Arms Trade Treaty was first launched by the Control Arms campaign more than a decade ago, only three countries – Mali, Costa Rica and Cambodia – supported it.
In a passionate statement issued after signing the treaty, Alistair Burt, a junior UK foreign minister and one of the co-authors who first introduced the resolution in 2006, welcomed it as a "great success for the UN" and signalled the UK's intention to ratify the pact this year.
Burt, representing William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said he signed on behalf of "all those who ever wrote a letter" to their elected representatives, or joined groups, NGOS or charities, protesting at the world's injustices and wondered if it ever made a difference.
He said the treaty would save lives, reduce human suffering and help combat terrorism and crime by "steadily reducing the unfettered proliferation of weapons which threaten the security of not only the countries where terrorists base themselves, but also their neighbours and the rest of the world".
At the same time, he said, it would protect the legitimate arms trade by "allowing states to access and acquire weaponry to lawfully defend themselves", but it would also ensure that this process is not circumvented, abused or exploited by the unscrupulous who care little for the pain and suffering they inflict.
The treaty will take effect once it is ratified by more than 50 countries. Its success depends on which counties ratify it and how it is implemented. Critics have expressed concern over how effective the treaty will be without consensus.
Syria, North Korea and Iran voted against the treaty, while major arms exporters including Russia and China, which had earlier raised major concerns about the final draft of the treaty, abstained, along with other nations including India.
Congress must ratify treaty amid NRA opposition
At a press conference at the UN on Monday, Peter Woolcott, the president of the UN Final Conference on the ATT, described it as a "very good framework" to build on.
Woolcott, who is also Australia's ambassador to the UN, said that "all major exporters and importers had played a "highly constructive role" in the treaty's negotiations and he was ''hopeful"that all would be able to sign up in time.
Amnesty International said that it believes China is "looking positively" at the treaty, although Russia is more sceptical.
Brian Wood, head of Arms Control and Human Rights at Amnesty International, said: "If the US does sign, China is the next door-opener."
The US was among the countries pushing for the General Assembly vote last month, in a 154-3 vote, but there has been speculation over whether it will ever get an agreement past Congress to ratify the treaty, given NRA opposition. Last year, after negotiations on the treaty broke down, the NRA claimed victory for "killing the UN ATT."
In a statement, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, said: "The United States welcomes the opening of the Arms Trade Treaty for signature, and we look forward to signing it as soon as the process of conforming the official translations is completed satisfactorily."
He stressed that the pact would require parties to implement strict controls of which the US has already in place and that it would not interfere with US citizens right to bear arms. "The ATT will not undermine the legitimate international trade in conventional weapons, interfere with national sovereignty, or infringe on the rights of American citizens, including our Second Amendment rights." Kerry said.
Human rights groups and arms campaigners, who have been battling for an arms control treaty for 10 years, urged countries to ratify the treaty as soon as possible.
Oxfam said it expected Norway as well as the UK to ratify before the end of the year. Wood said that Syria presented a "'critical test" of the intentions of the signatories, given what it said was the "substantial risk" that arms supplied to Syrian opposition groups would be used to commit of facilitate more human rights abuses.
More than 500,000 people are killed every year and millions more are displaced and abused as a result of armed violence and conflict.
Under the treaty, each state would be responsible for producing an annual report on transfers and also on the treaty's implementation, which are expected to be published by a minimum of 40 states, according to human rights groups.
"You're going to get naming and shaming and governments are going to have to respond and you will get pressure on states who ware blatantly misbehaving" said Wood.
Anna Macdonald, head of arms control at the charity Oxfam said: " For generations the arms trade has been shrouded in secrecy but from now on it will be open to scrutiny. The devastating humanitarian consequences of the current conflict in Syria underline just how urgently regulation of the arms trade is needed."
Allison Pytlak, campaign manager for Control Arms, said that overwhelming support of the treaty was an important deterrent even for those countries that did not sign. "Today a powerful global standard is being created. The ATT establishes new international law, which will affect the behaviour of all states, including non-signatories such as Russia and China. We have seen from the success of the mine Ban Treaty and the Convention on Cluster Munitions how the creation of new international standards is a powerful deterrent, even for those who do not immediately sign."
Baffour Amoa, president of West African Action Network on Small Arms, urged states that have championed the treaty to sign and ratify it. "We urge all countries to pass national law that will enforce the treaty.
"Today, the first day of the treaty becoming a reality takes us one step closer to tackling attacks against civilians and sexual violence in Africa, including eastern Congo, where millions have seen their lives torn apart by conflict."