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UN arms treaty not enough

Armed violence exterminates half a million lives annually on our good old earth, confirms the UN office for disarmament affairs.
Perhaps this horrific data should have been enough to prompt the global political leadership into focusing on ways and means of limiting production of weapons that encourages mass destruction. But then that is too much to hope for because war is embedded in human nature.
Even the much hyped Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), approved recently by the United Nations general assembly, failed to institutionalize a comprehensive mechanism that alleviate human sufferings in conflict zones around the globe. “History is a bath of blood,” wrote William James, whose anti-war essay written in 1906 is still regarded as one of the best of all pacifist literary works published till date. Even eminent biologist E.O. Wilson comes up with an interesting observation of human evolution being defined by conflict. This precisely explains the reason why combat has been the central objective for most of the technological enhancements effected throughout history. Deadly war continues to be that emotional trigger which fires up human sentiment universally and therefore utilized for politico-strategic purpose frequently. Peculiar it might sound, but the fact remains that horrors of conflict stir up human fascination even today though everybody realizes that war at the end of the day symbolizes life in extremis.
Why else would an international treaty which tries to justify itself citing the nauseating global mass casualty figure resulting out of innumerable small, medium and large scale conflicts going on across the world, pay no attention whatsoever to restricting and streamlining arms manufacturing as far as possible?
The powerful lobby of manufacturers and exporting nations, it seems, was successful in diluting the noble intent of such covenant which seeks to obstruct unrestricted arms flow to state and non-state actors with dismal human rights record. Despite flourishing compliments from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who called the passage of ATT as nothing less than a victory for the people of the world, the instrument can hardly be described as a panacea for human conflict management or for that matter a tool for achieving some degree of disincentive to genocidal tendency. Notwithstanding the widespread appreciation it received from different quarters for taking this maiden step in regulating the whopping 70 billion dollars conventional global arms trade, the UN is yet to be vested with critical intrusive monitoring and verification power. Lack of provisions for effective supervision of sources and means of weapon transportation as well as little scope for scrutinizing the end use of sophisticated armaments on the basis of formal complaints lodged by affected parties will make the new statute a toothless one. The complete absence of any clause that explicitly prohibits proliferation of arms and ammunition to non-state actors will only pave the way for lowering the bar on obligations of nation states to shun groups encouraging terrorism or actively engaged in fratricidal activities through violent means.
But then governments worldwide are bound to keep that window of opportunity open for respective espionage agencies to surreptitiously chip in with logistical support for rebels operating in countries ruled by unfriendly regimes.
After all, a very thin line of distinction exists between somebody’s freedom fighter and somebody’s terrorist for ages and our patriotic intelligence operatives have never let the effectiveness of Gerald Seymour’s famous expression — “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” — worn out with passage of time. However, strategic realities are often superseded by commercial considerations when it comes to the question of inciting regional unrest and thus it is very unlikely that ATT will effectively ease the immense human suffering caused by conflicts.
India has been one of the 23 absentee nations stuck in a moral dilemma, which failed to vote either way on ATT. To be fair to New Delhi, the covenant has glaring loopholes that might jeopardize the country’s strategic interest and defense preparedness in the long run.
The most vexatious one being the infringement of the rights of individual states to import armaments in accordance with their legitimate security needs. There indeed is no clarity on who will make the final call on who qualifies as a human rights abuser and which state will acquire the right to import armaments for protecting its sovereignty. Will nations like Israel be penalized for all the brutalities it inflicted on innocent civilians in Palestinian territory in the guise of confronting armed guerrilla fighters all these years? The treaty has also failed to address New Delhi’s apprehension regarding illegal transfer of arms to such rogue elements who spare no opportunity to bleed a nation and undermine its democratic tradition. But then, the Indian state too is guilty of looking the other way when its military illegally passed on Swedish made weapons to Myanmarese troops in breach of arms trading regulations.

— Seema Sengupta is a Kolkata-based journalist and columnist.