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Your Guns Are in Safe Hands

Authors: Stewart M. Patrick, Senior Fellow and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program, and Emma Welch
July 20, 2012
Council on Foreign Relations

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This was first posted on Stewart M. Patrick's blog, "The Internationalist."

As the protracted conflict in Syria escalates rapidly into civil war—fueled by arms both legally sold and illegally procured—delegations from 193 UN member states are convened in New York for month-long negotiations to hammer out a legally-binding treaty regulating the international conventional arms trade by the fast-approaching deadline of July 27.

The conference is off to a predictably rocky start. First, substantive discussions were delayed due to an unrelated dispute over the official status of the Palestinian delegation. Soon afterward, Iran was elected to the fifteen-member general committee, sparking a chorus of condemnation and raising red flags over the credibility of the conference as a whole. (Among other things, Iran arms Hezbollah in Lebanon and funnels weapons to the Assad regime, not to mention its record of illegal nuclear activities.)

Although such sideline issues serve as easy media fodder, participating countries generally agree that a treaty is desperately needed and long overdue. Valued at upwards of $40 billion each year, the international arms trade is largely unregulated and rife with loopholes exploited by rogue states, terrorist groups, and enterprising criminal syndicates. Despite twenty-six UN, regional, and multilateral arms embargoes, Oxfam estimates that approximately $2.2 billion in arms and ammunition bypassed such restrictions between 2000 and 2010. In addition, only fifty-two countries have laws regulating arms brokers, half of which have no associated criminal penalties. And according to Amnesty International, the global trade in commodities like bananas, iPods, and dinosaur bones are more heavily restricted than conventional weapons ranging from handguns to AK-47s to surface-to-air missiles.

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