Lone Gunmen of the United States

Voting against the world on exporting arms


| November 2, 2006


On October 26, the United Nations voted on a resolution to lay the groundwork for a treaty that would curb exporting arms to conflict areas or areas known for human rights abuses. The resolution passed 139 to 1, with 24 abstentions. The lone opponent? The world's largest arms exporter, the United States.

'The United Nations wants to keep weapons on the global market from falling into the hands of despots and guerillas,' writes Joshua Gallu in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel's online English edition. The arms trade treaty would cover both large arms, such as tanks and helicopters, as well as small arms, which have been known to destabilize countries. This recent vote pushed forward a two-part process of enacting a treaty, slated to take shape over the course of the next few years.

The treaty is meant to hash out much-needed international standards on arms trades. Writing for TomPaine.com, William D. Hartung, the director of the World Policy Institute's Arms Trade Resource Center, notes that up to this point 'the arms trade has been the 'orphan of arms control' -- bound by no international treaties of the sort that govern the possession or spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weaponry.'

Many are critical of the US for voting against the latest push for international standards, especially since other top arms producers like the United Kingdom and the other European Union nations all voted otherwise. Critics say that with the United States and arms-supplying nations like Russia and China, which abstained voting, not participating, the treaty's potential effectiveness is compromised.

The United States has countered with an interesting argument. According to Richard Grenell, spokesperson for the US mission to the United Nations, the United States considers the international agency's effort 'so far below what we are already required to do under US law that we had to vote against it in order to maintain our higher standards.'

But given that an estimated 70 percent of the United States' arms sales end up in the hands of human rights abusers and undemocratic regimes, not everyone is buying it. Hartung points out that powerful pro-gun groups like the National Rifle Association have been lobbying against the treaty in Washington. And while the US continues its campaign against weapons of mass destruction, Hartung suggests the US has a lot to gain from the spread of 'slow motion weapons of mass destruction' -- those smaller arms responsible for steadily climbing death rates in areas of conflict. Ironically, it's American soldiers who may benefit the most from reining in the sale of such weapons. As Hartung notes, a Johns Hopkins University study found that more than half of the US troops killed in Iraq have been on the wrong side of an AK-47.