UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the world's nations Monday to agree on a strong U.N. treaty to regulate the multibillion-dollar global arms trade in the next two weeks, saying it will save lives and make it more difficult for warlords, organized criminals and terrorists to obtain weapons.
Hopes of reaching agreement on what would be a landmark treaty were dashed last July when the United States said it needed more time to consider the proposed accord — a move quickly backed by Russia and China. In December, the U.N. General Assembly decided to hold a final conference with its closing date — March 28 — as a deadline for reaching agreement on a treaty.
"After a very long journey, our final destination is in sight — a robust Arms Trade Treaty," the U.N. chief told ministers and ambassadors from most of the 193 U.N. member states at Monday's opening session. "Now is the time to overcome past setbacks and deliver."
Many countries control arms exports, but there has never been an international treaty regulating the estimated $60 billion global arms trade. For more than a decade, activists and some governments have been pushing for international rules to try to ban the trade of illicit weapons.
Ban said the absence of a treaty regulating the conventional arms trade "defies explanation," citing international standards that regulate everything from t-shirts and toys to tomatoes and furniture.
"That means there are common standards for the global trade in armchairs but not the global trade in arms," he said.
The U.N. chief said poorly regulated international arms deals foster conflict, undermine development and lead to massive human rights violations and death, stressing that armed violence kills more than half a million people each year, including 66,000 women and girls.
An Arms Trade Treaty will make it more difficult for warlords, pirates, human rights abusers, organized criminals, terrorists and gun runners to obtain weapons because countries that ratify it will be required to control the trade in arms and ammunition, Ban said.
The draft treaty under consideration does not control the domestic use of weapons in any country, but it would require all countries to establish national regulations to control the transfer of conventional arms and to regulate arms brokers. It would prohibit states that ratify the treaty from transferring conventional weapons if they would violate arms embargoes or if they would promote acts of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes.
In considering whether to authorize the export of arms, the draft says a country must evaluate whether the weapon would be used to violate international human rights or humanitarian laws or be used by terrorists, organized crime or for corrupt practices.
Just before the conference opened, the foreign ministers of Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan, Kenya and Britain issued a joint statement urging "flexibility and commitment from everyone to secure a treaty which will save lives and reduce human suffering, and to bring transparency and consistency to the global arms trade whose legacy will endure for generations to come."
Finland's Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja told a news conference that the countries are optimistic that an agreement can be reached, and one reason is last Friday's statement from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Kerry said the United States is committed to reaching agreement on a strong U.N. treaty "that addresses international transfers of conventional arms solely." It will not support a treaty that would be inconsistent with U.S. law and the right of Americans under the Constitution to bear firearms, or a treaty that would impose new requirements on the U.S. domestic trade in firearms and U.S. exporters, he said.
Kerry's statement made no mention of the key issue of ammunition. Some countries want strong controls on ammunition sales as well as arms, but the U.S. is opposed to any restrictions on ammunition sales. The draft treaty in July had a provision that would ban the export of ammunition in cases where a country decided that the export of weapons was prohibited.
Led by Mexico, 108 countries in favor of a strong treaty signed a statement Monday saying the text needs "considerable improvement" to address loopholes and strengthen language on ammunition, criteria for sales, preventing diversion of weapons, and implementing the treaty. The U.S., Russia, China and France — all major arms exporters — were not among the signatories but Britain and Germany, also major exporters, supported the statement.
The statement warned that a weak treaty "could serve to legitimize the irresponsible and illegal arms trade."
Australian Ambassador Peter Woolcott, elected president of the conference, said disappointment after last July's failure to reach agreement has given way "to determination ... to finish the job."
He said preparations for the conference over the past few months show "that the world is ready for an Arms Trade Treaty" and he urged delegates to "look for solutions that can bridge remaining differences and that hold the prospect of consensus."
The start of the conference was almost delayed by a dispute over the participation of the two U.N. non-member states, Palestine and the Vatican. But Woolcott announced that an agreement had been reached to allow them to speak and participate, but not be part of the decision-making process.