Negotiations on a treaty aimed at regulating the global conventional arms trade began last week at the United Nations General Assembly.
Leading advocates of such an agreement, including Kenya, have long argued that the unrestricted flow of assault rifles and similar weapons fuels civil conflicts of the sort that has destabilised Somalia.
Supporters are also calling for the treaty to cover hand grenades, which have been used in recent terrorist attacks in Kenya.
Opening the talks, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared, “We do not have a multilateral treaty of global scope dealing with conventional arms. This is a disgrace.”
UN officials say that the talks, scheduled to run until July 27 in New York, will seek to produce a treaty “to prevent conventional weapons from making their way into the hands of human rights abusers and from being used to perpetuate conflicts and undermine development.”
Kenya was the only African state among six nations that sponsored a UN resolution in 2006 preparing the way for this month’s negotiations.
Nairobi also serves as the base for a secretariat focused on limiting the illicit trade in small arms in the Horn and Great Lakes.
However, some analysts warn that the talks are unlikely to produce a binding agreement with strong enforcement mechanisms.
Under rules established at the insistence of the United States, consensus is required in order for an arms trade treaty to be adopted. That means that any of the General Assembly’s 193 member-states can block specific provisions, as well as an overall agreement.
The Obama administration announced in 2009 that it was reversing the position set by former president George W Bush opposing an arms trade treaty in principle. But the US, the world’s leading arms exporter, said it would support treaty negotiations on the basis of consensus decision-making.
There is also a slim likelihood of the US actually ratifying an arms trade treaty, due to the political power of gun owners groups. They are usually successful in persuading the US Congress to kill initiatives that are not to their liking. And many of these lobbyists are warning that a UN treaty would infringe on the US constitution’s protection of the right to bear arms.
Two other permanent members of the UN Security Council — China and Russia — are also major global arms dealers and are thus unlikely to favour strict treaty language.
At the same time, NGOs advocating effective controls on arms sales are making the point that there are currently far more restrictions on the global trade in fruit than in AK-47s.
“It is beyond ridiculous that governments and corporations are far more constrained by international law when trading bananas than when trading arms,” Oxfam said in a statement issued in the run-up to the launch of negotiations.