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A long time coming: The Arms Trade Treaty and US signature

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Meredith Larson is humanitarian campaign manager for Oxfam America. She recently led Oxfam America’s campaign for the Arms Trade Treaty.

The buildings were bombed, minutes apart. Days before I arrived in Guatemala City to work as an international human rights observer, the organization for which I worked and a Guatemalan human rights organization were targeted. This bombing campaign, which was later attributed to elements of the Guatemalan military, occurred in locations across the capital.

A demolitions expert told us that the explosives were US-made.

My commitment to confronting the abuses and crimes fueled by the international arms trade became a key part of my work as a human rights advocate from then on. Today I am working  on the humanitarian crisis in Syria, a crisis fueled by weapons—100,000 killed, and more than 1 million children displaced.

What keeps me going in the midst of this suffering and injustice? It’s the victories that are possible. In April, the large majority of UN member states passed the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). And just this past week, we celebrated that the US, the world’s largest arms exporter, added its signature to the ATT.

The Arms Trade Treaty holds tremendous promise for coming generations, and it took us almost 100 years to get to this point. The first efforts to regulate the global trade in conventional weapons began shortly after the conclusion of World War I. In the aftermath of the carnage of WWI, member states of the young League of Nations tried, but failed to produce an arms trade treaty. What my grandparents’ generation could unfortunately not realize, we did.

Campaigners demonstrated in favor of an Arms Trade Treaty on the streets of London in 2012.  Photo: Mike Kemp/Oxfam-Amnesty International
Campaigners demonstrated in favor of an Arms Trade Treaty on the streets of London in 2012. Photo: Mike Kemp/Oxfam-Amnesty International

In the wake of several deadly conflicts in Latin America, Africa, Middle East, and the Balkans in the 1980s and 1990s, several Nobel Peace Laureates and a core group of NGOs began work to develop a legally-binding International Code of Conduct for international arms transfers. In 2001, a group of Nobel Peace Laureates circulated the Draft Framework Convention on International Arms Transfers. Campaigners supporting this convention conceived of a global campaign to build political will for this treaty. Oxfam, Amnesty International, and the International Action Network on Small Arms launched a worldwide campaign for an international Arms Trade Treaty in 2003.

Ten years ago, at the start of our global campaign, only three small nation-states—Costa Rica, Cambodia, and Mali—supported the idea of the global treaty. After years of intensive work, civil society and governments have much to be proud of: the world’s nation-states have adopted a global Arms Trade Treaty, and in the four months since it opened for signature, 112 countries have signed on and seven have already become parties to the treaty.

The US government has much to be proud of with its active support of the ATT in the final set of negotiations, and with its recent signature. US Senators should now follow suit, ignore the misinformation about the ATT, and quickly ratify the treaty when it is brought to the Senate.

When the Treaty enters into force, it will require governments to assess all arms transfers against the risk that weapons will be used for human rights abuses, terrorism, transnational organized crime or violations of international humanitarian law. Governments who have not yet signed should step up as soon as possible. Once 50 states become parties to the treaty through ratification or acceptance, the treaty enters into force, and over the coming years, we hope and expect a new global norm will unfold.

While we can’t reverse history in Syria, Guatemala, and so many countries, we can create a better future. We can do so by realizing the promise of the Arms Trade Treaty.

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