Progress has been disappointing at the month-long United Nations conference to find international arms deal standards - major arms-exporting countries are still holding out against stricter regulations.
The UN has promised "the highest possible international standards" for the weapons trade, and NGO representatives have demanded the introduction of "golden rules:" The sale of tanks, guns, or ammunition "must not be approved if they can be used to violate human rights, or international humanitarian law, start aggressive wars or threaten regional stability," said Robert Lindner of Oxfam Germany, who is taking part in the UN talks in New York.
Lindner told DW that the first two weeks were "pretty chaotic," and now time is running out to find an agreement by July 27, when the conference is due to end.
Michael Ashkenazi, senior researcher at the Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC), says one of the critical issues is the question "whether and to what degree the UN or any other external body will regulate what is specified in the UN Charter as the rights of states to self defense."
"If states have a right to self defense, then they obviously have a right to buy the weapons for that self defense," he said. "And when you start impinging on that kind of right, then you're in effect attacking a fundamental UN charter issue with something new."
Most parties in New York agree that the trade in tanks and airplanes should be regulated just as much as the small arms business, but the question of ammunition remains a sticking point. The US vehemently rejects any proposal to put ammunition under any restrictions, likewise equipment used by the police and security forces - "so teargas and security equipment that are used for human rights abuses, as we saw throughout the Arab Spring," says Lindner.
Billions in turnover secure jobs
The weapons business is lucrative. In 2010 alone, the sale of tanks, artillery, fighter jets, warships, assault rifles, and ammunition brought a turnover of $410 billion (334 billion euros) for the top 100 weapons firms worldwide, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said in its 2012 report. Many of these weapons were delivered to states riven by internal crisis, where they have exacerbated, prolonged, or indeed initiated armed conflicts. The most conspicuous example is Syria, where President Bashar Assad's regime has been armed by Russian weapons.
The biggest weapons exporters in the world are the five veto powers in the UN Security Council - the US, Russia, China, France and Britain. SIPRI say that, along with Germany and Italy, they have cornered 80 percent of the world arms business. At least three million people are employed in the US arms industry, while 80,000 are employed by the German one.
Protecting business interests
Russia and the US have been joined in their opposition to stricter regulations by India, one of the world's biggest weapons buyers. But its motivations are very different, says Ashkenazi. "The US is the number one arms exporter in the world and it is less than happy about having that trade regulated by outsiders," he said.
"It has to be said, that the United States to some degree - let's not mention the stingers that were given to Afghan mujahidin, let's not mention all kinds of bits and bobs here and there, weapons given to the Iraqis, and so on - aside from those few blips, the United States has a fairly good regulatory system to try and ensure that their arms are not misused. Nevertheless, they don't want other people poking their noses into what they consider their business. And it's a very big business."
China is one of the most vehement opponents of the weapons trade. "China sells arms to all and sundry," said Ashkenazi. "It's unlikely that China will accept a strong and robust Arms Trade Treaty. China probably will accept, and I think it has signed up to, regulating brokers, because they don't use brokers, they basically trade government to government."
To break up these structures, NGOs are calling, above all, for greater transparency. "It must be reported publicly," believes Lindner, arguing that it was not enough for states to simply report their approval decisions to a central treaty office, or for them to report arms deals to each other confidentially.
"Then the public would never find out about them," he said. "It's a kind of indirect sanctioning. If it were public, you could put pressure on states by 'naming and shaming' companies and governments."
But there is one more big hurdle to take: the treaty must be agreed unanimously - and the clock is counting down to July 27.
Author: Mirjam Gehrke / bk
Editor: Rob Mudge