Ten years in the making, the treaty seeks to stop the flow of weapons to criminals and terrorists
“A remarkable result that introduces a rule of law.”
This comment by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace came in response to the United Nations’ approval of the first historic international treaty on the trade of conventional weapons. “It is a victory for the people of the world,” added the General Secretary of the United Nations, according to whom “the lethal use of arms by criminals, terrorists and warlords” has now been made more difficult.
Thunderous applause marked this important step. The General Assembly approved the treaty on conventional weapons control with 154 votes in favor; 23 countries abstained, and 3 opposed (Iran, North Korea and Syria – the regions of most concern to the international community). Also historical – as many have described this document – is the United States’ agreement to the treaty, despite its being one of the leading manufacturers of weapons in the world. Internally, however, opposition will continue to grow from the National Rifle Association, which lobbies for weapons producers.
The document arrived at the finish line after almost ten years of negotiations, requiring for the first time greater international transparency to a turnover of $70 billion a year. The guiding principle of the new standard is to condition the sale of arms to the buyer’s record of respect for human rights. The treaty therefore calls on governments to ensure that private contracts do not violate the arms embargo and do not end up putting instruments of death in the hands of criminals or terrorists. For this reason, the document requires countries to adopt stricter rules and implement more controls before granting licenses to traders. To enter into force, it is necessary that at least 50 states ratify the treaty.
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The Arms Trade Treaty is a text strongly supported by the Holy See, which over the years has repeatedly called for an “effective” measure to be put into place, based on the protection of the human person. Vatican Radio’s Benedetta Capelli asked Vittorio Alberti, official of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, for an opinion on the matter:
Alberti: From a historical perspective, the outcome is outstanding, both in principle and also in terms of intentions presented by the Social Doctrine of the Church, which then translate into historical and political acts. It is also noteworthy in terms of diplomacy because it introduces a rule of law where this tends to be absent. In this sense, it is a favorable outcome for the Holy See and for society.
VR: The Holy See had asked repeatedly that there be a large consensus centered on “a strong and credible text” and especially that the human person be placed at its center. In anchoring the treaty to respect for human rights … something has been accomplished …
Alberti: Yes, of course. It is difficult to talk about human rights, and about the human person when it comes to weapons. So you have to maneuver within compromise, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Ideally, peace would be built politically, as called for in the encyclical Pacem in Terris, whose anniversary we mark this year. We can say that the defense of the human person, even in the vast horizon of this treaty, suffers from certain historical and objective difficulties, but certainly to introduce some legal criteria – as this treaty has done – is decidedly positive. The dynamics of this treaty has majorities, minorities, and votes of abstention on the part of great powers; the United States supported it. When we enter into the details we may comment further, but there have been results and we are satisfied.
VR: Many experts believe this is a rather low-scale treaty.
Alberti: More could be done, but from a historical perspective I would say that it is an outstanding outcome. The possibility of circumventing the treaty is a limitation of any human law. We hope that each State will juridically adopt this principle in concrete terms with a view to carrying it out. History will take its course, but the Holy See’s diplomatic efforts will continually press on.
VR: In speaking of the countries that voted and those that abstained, we mentioned that the United States voted in favor. It’s a truly historic change …
Alberti: The United States did support it, but the U.S. perpetuates its own democratic tradition in this sense: unlike other powerful nations, the United States remains a great democracy, and therefore, they are putting trust in their own tradition.
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Vatican Radio’s Benedetta Capelli also spoke with Maurizio Simoncelli, Vice-president of Archivio Disarmo, about the importance of the UN Arms Trade Treaty:
Simoncelli: Certainly it is a historic agreement, reached after almost ten years during which time a number of initiatives were launched by civil society. We have now arrived in the form of a treaty, but unfortunately, it is extremely weak compared to what was needed.
VR:What are the critical aspects of the approved agreement?
Simoncelli: This was basically a barebones compromise supported by various countries, including the United States, Russia, India and China. Basically, we have a treaty that covers only the main weapon systems: tanks, large caliber artillery systems, planes, helicopters, ships, submarines, missiles and small arms for military use. However, ammunition and weapons components remain on the periphery, with limited forms of control, and firearms that are not for exclusive military use, electronic weapons, radar, satellites and arms transfers that are made within government agreements, assistance programs and military cooperation remain totally outside … So you can then get around it by creating a cooperative agreement with the recipient country, and in such case, the agreement may no longer fall within the scope of this treaty. It is a treaty that leaves a lot of room for maneuvering. The problem is to see how countries that are large weapons producers will apply it, and especially if they will use all the possible escape routes the treaty allows.
VR: But there is an important element, one tied to respect for human rights …
Simoncelli: Definitely. There are some positive elements and a number of prohibitions. It is a small first step. It’s not exactly what was desired, but it is likely there will be further work. The fact that it was approved by the UN’s General Assembly will allow subsequent interventions to be integrated into it through various optional protocols involving the Assembly in the improvement of the treaty. Now the issue is to ratify it as soon as possible for at least 50 states, at which point the treaty would actually become enforceable.
VR:Perhaps this treaty is also historic, since for the first time it was supported by the United States …
Simoncelli: Certainly. At the session held prior to the Conference – which took place in July 2012 – the United States found itself having to endure the pressures of a powerful lobby of U.S. arms manufacturers, who had sent a letter written by about 51 Senate Republicans and Democrats. In the letter, they advised President Obama not to adhere to the treaty, since otherwise it would not have been ratified in the Senate. At the time, Obama gave in by asking for a postponement, also because he was at the height of the presidential campaign season. In this latest conference, which concluded last week, the United States changed their position, and in the General Assembly’s final vote they decided to vote in favor of the treaty. Certainly the favorable position of the United States, as well as the abstention of other countries such as Russia and China, allowed the agreement to pass.