Draft U.N. arms trade treaty full of holes, activists say

UNITED NATIONS Tue Jul 24, 2012 6:32pm EDT

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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The first draft of a U.N. treaty to regulate the $60 billion global arms trade was slammed on Tuesday by activists as having "more holes than a leaky bucket" as negotiators scramble to reach a consensus by Friday.

One person every minute dies from armed violence around the world, and arms control activists say a convention is needed to prevent illicitly traded guns from pouring into conflict zones and fueling wars and atrocities. Conflicts in Syria and elsewhere show a treaty is necessary, they add.

"Our concern with this text is that at the moment it has more holes than a leaky bucket," Anna Macdonald, head of arms control at Oxfam, told reporters. "And if these holes are not closed we won't end up with a treaty that saves lives."

After losing the first week of the month-long negotiations to procedural wrangling, delegations from around the world now only have three days left to work on the delayed draft text before a possible vote. The treaty must be approved unanimously, so any one country can effectively veto a deal.

But if a consensus cannot be reached, the treaty may not be doomed. Activists have said nations supporting a stronger pact could then bring a treaty to the 193-nation U.N. General Assembly and adopt it with a two-thirds majority vote.

"The text that leaves this conference must not be the text with these loopholes. It's got to be a decent text even if it goes back to the General Assembly," said Brian Wood, arms control and human rights manager at Amnesty International.

The draft treaty currently says that it would only come into effect after it has been ratified by 65 countries, which some activists say could take up to 10 years. Arms control campaigners say only 30 ratifications should be needed.

"Every major element ... has major loopholes," said Peter Herby, head of the International Committee for the Red Cross arms unit. "There is a very high risk this treaty will simply ratify the status quo, rather than changing the status quo."

"Rather than producing the highest possible international standards for the transfer of all conventional weapons, it would allow many countries to simply continue doing what they're doing," Herby said.

"BUSINESS AS USUAL"

While most U.N. member states favor a strong treaty, activists said they were at times being drowned out in negotiations by objections and disruptions from a minority of states including Syria, North Korea, Iran, Egypt and Algeria.

There are divisions on key issues, such as whether human rights should be a mandatory criterion for determining whether governments should permit weapons exports to specific countries.

Herby said the draft references to humanitarian law were "unlikely to make a great deal of difference in practice."

Macdonald listed several criticisms. He said the range of weapons in the draft treaty needed to be expanded, particularly to include ammunition; the rules governing risk assessments that countries must do before authorizing an arms sale needed to be tightened; and the whole treaty needed to be broadened to cover the entire global arms trade and not just illicit transactions.

The Conflict Awareness Project said that when it came to regulating arms brokers the draft treaty was "so weak and watered down it will give comfort to illicit gun runners."

"The feeble treaty language means business as usual for traffickers who are filling the arsenals of the world's worst human rights abusers," said Kathi Lynn Austin of the Conflict Awareness Project.

The negotiations on the treaty in New York were delayed for the first week by a dispute over Palestinian participation, which was eventually resolved by allowing the delegation to sit at the front of the negotiating hall but without the right to participate as states with voting rights.

Such procedural bickering was typical of the arms trade talks, diplomats say, as countries that would prefer not to have a strong treaty tried to prevent the negotiations from moving forward. In February, preparatory talks on the rules nearly collapsed due to procedural wrangling and other disagreements.

One of the reasons this month's negotiations are taking place is that the United States, the world's biggest arms trader accounting for over 40 percent of global conventional arms transfers, reversed U.S. policy on the issue after Barack Obama became president and decided in 2009 to support a treaty.

But U.S. officials say Washington insisted in February on having the ability to veto a weak treaty.

"We have been making clear throughout our red lines (limits), including that we will not accept any treaty that infringes on Americans' Second Amendment rights," a U.S. official who did not want to be identified said on Tuesday, referring to U.S. domestic rights to bear arms -- a sensitive issue in the United States.

The other five top arms suppliers are Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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