Humanitarian Groups Push for ‘Bulletproof’ Arms Treaty

Arms-control and humanitarian groups are pressing President Barack Obama to seek a tough international treaty restricting sales of conventional arms.

“We are writing to encourage you and your administration to spare no effort to seize the historic opportunity to negotiate a robust, bullet-proof Arms Trade Treaty,” groups including the Arms Control Association, Amnesty International USA and Oxfam America wrote in a letter to Obama.

The United Nations will attempt in July to establish the first international standards for the export and transfer of conventional weapons. While embracing the initiative in concept, Obama administration officials have said business opportunities for U.S. military companies must be protected.

“We do not want something that would make legitimate international arms trade more cumbersome than the hurdles United States exporters already face,” Thomas Countryman, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said in an April 16 speech to the Stimson Center in Washington.

How to deal with international traders of conventional arms has been a thorny issue for the Obama administration.

When the Pentagon needed helicopters for the Afghan military, it turned to Russia’s state-run arms trader, Rosoboronexport, even though the company is a top arms supplier to the Syrian regime that has killed thousands of its civilians to quell an uprising.

Sales to Syria

A new international arms treaty “would make it much more difficult for states like Russia to justify sales to the Assad regime,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, said in an interview.

More than $2.2 billion in arms and ammunition have been imported since 2000 by countries operating under arms embargoes, according to a report by Oxford, U.K.-based Oxfam International.

Syria imported more than $1 million in small arms and light weapons, ammunition and other munitions in 2010, as well as air-defense systems and missiles valued at an additional $167 million, the report found.

While the U.S. would like to target regimes such as Syria, stumbling blocks may hinder the international consensus needed to negotiate the arms treaty within the four weeks allotted by the UN, Kimball said. Chief among those obstacles is the question of whether the treaty will cover the sale of ammunition, he said.

Controlling Ammunition

The arms-control advocates said ammunition must be covered in a treaty.

“The world is already full of guns,” the groups wrote in their May 22 letter to Obama. “It is the constant flows of ammunition that feeds and prolongs conflicts and armed violence.”

Countryman, in his Stimson Center speech, called the regulation of ammunition “hugely impractical,” while he said the administration remains “open-minded.”

In the letter to Obama, the groups said, “Thousands of civilians around the globe are slaughtered each year by weapons that are sold, transferred by governments or diverted to unscrupulous regimes, criminals, illegal militias and terrorist groups.”

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