Finally a life-saving Arms Trade Treaty – but where was Canada?

It finally happened. On Tuesday – after decades of talks and failed negotiations – 154 nations united to adopt a comprehensive Arms Trade Treaty at the United Nations General Assembly. This treaty will introduce new global standards for regulating the international trade of conventional weapons, valued at $60-billion a year.

By developing a robust, common framework for the arms trade – including new humanitarian thresholds for exports, and transparent annual reporting measures – this landmark treaty will, we can hope, make it more difficult for weapons to reach human rights abusers, marking a major step forward for humanitarian law.

Its scope is wide. The treaty covers small arms and light weapons, missiles, tanks, combat vehicles, aircraft and warships. Most importantly, it prohibits the export of arms intended for use against children and civilians, in crimes against humanity and acts of genocide.

The treaty’s adoption was an unlikely victory, as Iran, Syria and North Korea – all human-rights pariahs – worked to block its passage in the final hours of negotiations, preventing the required consensus. In response, Kenya and eleven other nations called on conference president Peter Woolcott to bring the text to the General Assembly on Tuesday for a vote, where it passed by an overwhelming majority.

For years, the unregulated trade of small arms and light weapons has fuelled bloody conflicts all over the developing world (pressure groups often noted that the global trade in bananas is better regulated than the global trade of AK-47s). Weapons sold or diverted to unsavoury armed groups have, for example, allowed for the widespread use of child soldiers, many of whom are stolen from their families, maimed, raped, drugged, used as sex slaves or otherwise abused.

The sale and resale of arms also has massive indirect consequences, displacing entire populations and denying economic development to millions. Aid organizations estimate that armed conflict has cost the African continent alone more than $300-billion between 1990 and 2005 – an amount that rivals development aid for the region.

It was clear from the beginning that consensus would not be achieved. More than a decade has passed since the process delivered on any sort of meaningful prohibition on arms proliferation. The sole area for agreement since 1992 has been on the use of chemical weapons.

This improbable outcome could mark the beginning of the end for consensus-based decision making in disarmament, overcoming the paralyzed and broken system that often accompanies it. Now the lowest common denominator will no longer dictate the yardstick for human rights.

Throughout the process, however, Canada has avoided taking a leadership role in negotiations – the kind of role it had in the 1997 Ottawa Treaty discussions to ban land mines. This time, countries such as the U.K., Mexico, Japan and Kenya led the way.

In a joint statement last month signed by 108 nations in support of the treaty, Canada was nowhere to be found. Last week, 32 countries publicly backed Kenya’s proposal to bring the treaty to the General Assembly for a vote. Again, Canada was absent. Instead, our diplomats were instructed to oppose the inclusion of ammunition in the areas covered in the convention (luckily they failed).

In the final vote, our diplomats supported the treaty, but Canada’s increasing reluctance to take leadership roles in these negotiations is a cause for concern and risks sabotaging its reputation as a champion of human rights. We cannot lead from the bleachers.

While we know the adoption of the treaty is only the beginning, what is clear is that the greatest barrier has now been dismantled. Now that the text has been adopted, countries must rally to sign and ratify the treaty to the highest interpretation.

At once, the emergence of the Arms Trade Treaty is a huge blow to human rights abusers and illicit arms traffickers, and a critical preventative tool that could save millions of lives. It is a momentous victory for the UN, and an even greater victory for civilians. Let us not waste this opportunity.

Originally published in The Globe and Mail