by William D. Hartung 10/27/06

While the U.S. hangs its foreign policy on preventing the spread of “weapons of mass destruction” (a worthy goal, however grossly the Bush administration goes about achieving it), it continues to ignore a more immediate threat–the proliferation of small arms and light weapons–that deserves serious attention as well. These low-tech arms have been described as “slow motion weapons of mass destruction,” because they are responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths over the past dozen years, from the genocide in Rwanda to the ongoing civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Yet yesterday, the United States, the world’s largest supplier of small arms, was the only country to vote against an historic United Nations proposal to curb traffic in arms.

The United Nations vote was the culmination of the work of a network of prominent individuals and diverse non-governmental organizations. They set out to address the problem of small arms and light weapons–as well as larger systems like tanks, fighter planes and attack helicopters–by putting forward a proposal for an Arms Trade Treaty. The thrust of the proposed treaty is to curb arms transfers to major human rights abusers and areas of conflict. It would also urge weapons suppliers to limit weapons sales that are likely to undermine development in poor nations.

Other elements of an arms treaty could include the creation of common international criteria for assessing particular exports, and movement toward global enforcement mechanisms such as licensing of the arms brokers and shippers who are all too often at the center of illegal deals that have fueled conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Angola and Rwanda.

As a first step–by a vote of 139 to 1 with 24 abstentions–the U.N. General Assembly agreed yesterday to create a two-part process aimed at pursuing such a treaty. The United States was the only vote in opposition to the resolution.

Now, as a result of the successful vote, the first step will be a survey of U.N. member states by the secretary general’s office. The survey will seek the views of U.N. members on the feasibility and practicality of a legally binding treaty that would set international standards on arms transfers. In 2008, these same questions will be addressed by a group of experts that will delve more deeply into the subject.

However long it takes, a treaty will be an historic step forward in the global arms control regime. Up until now, 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.

How can it be that the Bush administration was the only government in the world that voted against even thinking about an Arms Trade Treaty? U.S. security has suffered more harm than good from the widespread availability of small arms and light weapons, which often end up being used against U.S. troops. A recent study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University has found that over half of U.S. casualties in Iraq have been inflicted by AK-47s.

In fact, American-made weapons also frequently end up pointing at American soldiers. For example, the early foundations of al-Qaida were built in part on relationships and weaponry that came from the billions of dollars in U.S. support for the Afghan mujahadin during the war to expel Soviet forces from that country. U.S. military personnel in Somalia and Panama faced U.S.-supplied weaponry that had been given to those nations when they were U.S. allies. In Panama, the issue at hand was a change in Panamanian and U.S. government policies. In Somalia, warlords got hold of U.S.-origin weapons in the wake of the overthrow of the Siad Barre dictatorship. These patterns are likely to continue if nothing is done to stem the wholesale trade in weapons.

The specific impacts of runaway arms trafficking on U.S. forces are amplified by broader concerns. Relatively inexpensive and readily available small arms and light weapons can be used to destabilize countries, creating political chaos and economic devastation. In turn this can contribute to making these countries havens for terrorism while undermining their ability to achieve economic self-sufficiency and accountable governments.

So, the question remains, why is the United States opposed to taking measures to stop this deadly trade? The first answer is strategic. The executive branch wants to preserve its “freedom of action” to arm U.S.-allied groups like the Nicaraguan contras, the Afghan mujahadin, Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA movement in Angola, the Iraqi National Congress and groups opposed to the current regime in Iran. Even if one accepts the right of the United States to attempt to overthrow governments that oppose its short-term political or economic imperatives–which this author does not–the short-term “benefits” of these arms-supply relationships are inevitably outweighed by the long-term costs to U.S. and global interests. Unfortunately, short-sighted policymakers in Washington–of both parties–have failed to understand or accept this fundamental principle.

As the world’s number one arms exporting nation, the United States has a special responsibility to take the lead in regulating the trade. A 2005 report by the World Policy Institute found that of the largest U.S. arms recipients in the developing world, over 70 percent were undemocratic regimes, major human rights abusers or both.

The United States is not alone in the business of unsavory arms exports. A recent report by the research group Saferworld found that in the past year, the United Kingdom provided weapons to 19 of 20 nations that had been singled out by its own government as “major countries of concern” for human rights abuses. And the Control Arms Campaign has found Russian, Greek, Chinese and U.S.-origin bullets in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is engaged in one of the deadliest civil wars in living memory.

A second factor in U.S. opposition to any substantial measures to curb the weapons trade is the role of the domestic gun lobby. Both the National Rifle Association and its allied organization, the World Forum on the Future of Sport Shooting Activities, have gone on record against an Arms Trade Treaty. National Rifle Association propaganda has made the false claim that a treaty would lead to the confiscation of guns owned by U.S. citizens.

The good news is that, despite U.S. opposition, the U.N. General Assembly has voted to support steps towards the creation of a treaty regulating the arms trade. This is due in large part to the strenuous efforts of organizations like Amnesty International, Oxfam and the International Action Network on Small Arms, which includes over 500 member organizations in more than 100 countries.

There is a long way to go before there will be an international treaty curbing the arms trade, but this week’s action at the United Nations is an important step forward, and an indication that progress can be made even in the face of opposition by the Bush administration and the gun lobby. A change in U.S. policy is urgently needed, but in the mean time the rest of the world is moving ahead without us.

William D. Hartung is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute at the New School and the director of the Institute’s Arms Trade Resource Center.