Scant progress in UN arms talks

2012-07-16 11:02

Geneva - Talks among UN member states on a conventional arms treaty are halfway through but little progress has been made, prompting fears that a deal will not be reached by the 27 July deadline.

The month-long session was delayed for a day due to a flap over Palestinian participation - delegates joined the negotiations as observers in the end. Progress has since been slowed by what diplomats call the "sceptic states".

These countries - Algeria, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea and Syria, among others - want any eventual treaty to be limited to the fight against arms trafficking, diplomats and activist groups say.

Western and African nations meanwhile want a more sweeping treaty to regulate the conventional weapons trade, which experts estimate to be worth more than $70bn a year.

Under such a scheme, each country would be asked to determine if arms sold were at risk of being used to commit human rights violations, to destabilise a government or aggravate a regional conflict.

"We're at the halfway point and in 15 days, practically nothing has been done," said Aymeric Elluin, a campaigner for Amnesty International focused on arms issues.

Different interests

"For the moment, there is no agreement on anything, including on what should and should not be in the treaty - munitions, technology transfers, spare parts, light arms, et cetera."

The United States - which produces six billion bullets a year - wants to exclude munitions from the treaty, while China doesn't want it to cover small arms, which it exports en masse to developing countries.

Experts however say Beijing could give ground in order to assuage its allies in Africa, where such weapons are used in rebellions and civil wars.

European nations meanwhile have been pushing for a wide-ranging, binding treaty, while South Korea does not want to hinder technology transfers.

Oxfam France's Nicolas Vercken said he believed that pressure to reach a deal would mount, as "there is not one country - even Iran and North Korea - that is ready to bear the political responsibility of making these talks fail".

But as the UN member states must reach a decision by consensus, any of the 193 countries involved could upend the negotiations. Once the treaty is concluded, a sufficient number of countries must sign and ratify it.

Possible outcomes

One Western diplomat put the chances of success at 60%.

"Substantive talks have just begun. They are moving forward slowly and with difficulty," the diplomat said on condition of anonymity. Negotiations are split between two committees focusing on the key contentious points.

Some of the main players have not even joined the talks yet. China's chief negotiators will only arrive at UN headquarters in New York in a few days, and Russia's top negotiator will only attend the final week of talks.

"Many countries are not unhappy about letting Egypt or Algeria do the dirty work," said Elluin, adding that the treaty should be "a short text, spelling out major principles".

In the meantime, observers are looking at all possible outcomes - from a mixed success to total catastrophe.

One diplomat said the conference could produce a text that has the backing of a large number of countries, with the exception of the so-called "sceptic states" like Iran and North Korea.

Palestinian participation

The UN General Assembly could then take up the text at its annual meeting in September and put it up for signature.

But the wheelings and dealings are not over yet. The issue of Palestinian participation could be raised again, as they were looking to fully take part in the negotiations.

"It's a sword of Damocles," said Oxfam's Vercken, adding that Israel and the United States could walk out of the talks if the "sceptics" push them on the Palestinian issue.

A diplomat also said the issue could throw a spanner in the works, despite a pledge by the Palestinians not to disrupt the negotiations.

UN leader Ban Ki-moon has demanded strict standards for arms exports and national legislation, though he acknowledged that "the global arms trade touches on core national interests".

The United States is by far the world's biggest arms trader, accounting for more than 40% of conventional weapons sales. Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia follow.