One year since the arms treaty vote and there's more work to do

It doesn’t seem like a year ago that I was sitting quietly in the balcony overlooking the main UN General Assembly chamber in New York, nervously awaiting the landmark vote to adopt the arms trade treaty.

I say quietly because we’d already been told by UN Security that any form of activist disruption to the days proceedings - UN Security speak for “clapping” - would result in our summary ejection from the building. Lucky for us, when the big screen announced the vote – 154 in favour, 3 against and 23 abstaining – it was the Government delegates far below us that lead the applause, and the cheers!

It was one of those great moments in life. Something you’d spent nearly all your working life – some twenty years - campaigning for, including seven tense and often frantic years in the corridors and debating halls of UN, happens right in front of you, with an overwhelming endorsement.

From 'naïve and unrealistic' to a global treaty

Just a few short years ago, our ideas for an arms trade treaty were ridiculed by most as being unthinkably naïve and unrealistic.

Looking back, was it really that naïve to think that weapons that continue to kill, maim and traumatise millions of people worldwide should at least have the same level of regulation as bananas and antique furniture?

But one year on, we still have much to do. There still is no functioning treaty. It still remains a piece of paper, and as important as this paper is, it won’t start working to save lives, protect human rights and reduce armed conflict until it enters into force. It won’t do that until 90 days after 50 governments have ratified it.

Crucially, 43 of the governments who voted so overwhelmingly to adopt the treaty have spent the year doing absolutely zero to help bring it into effect - they haven’t even signed it yet!

That includes some notable absences. Significant arms exporting countries like Canada and Israel, countries that have been ravaged by decades of armed conflict and violence like Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Even Kenya has yet to sign – a country who, alongside Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan and the UK, championed the treaty through all of its seven years of tough negotiations through the UN.

31 down, 19 to go, and then the arms treaty is law

Today marked the one year anniversary of the UN vote and saw 18 governments jointly deposit their signed ratification papers at a special ceremony at the UN. That brings the total of ratifications up to 31, well over half way to the 50 we need.

I am particularly proud that the UK was amongst those 18 in New York today.

UK to ratify Arms Trade Treaty today. Was proud to sign ratification instrument last week #Raceto50 #ArmsTreaty

— William Hague (@WilliamJHague) April 2, 2014

It is a testament to hard work over many years of thousands of activists lobbying successive UK governments on this issue. In ratifying, the UK actually further strengthened its laws on arms brokering, enhancing existing controls on arms traffickers and gun-runners. Just one example of where the Arms Trade Treaty has already had a positive impact on raising standards and controls here in the UK.

But our government is far from perfect. We've criticised them for their continuing arms sales to many authoritarian regimes, particularly in the Middle East and for repeatedly failing to adequately police arms fairs

There is now every likelihood that we will see the 50th ratification as early as this autumn, allowing the treaty enter into force well within two years of its adoption. For an international Treaty, that’s actually that’s pretty good going.

To put progress into perspective The International Criminal Court took nearly four years to enter into force, the Convention on Cluster munitions took just over two years and the landmine Ban Treaty 18 months. Some treaties are still waiting, The Comprehensive Test ban treaty for Nuclear weapons negotiated some 20 years ago still requires a further 8 states to sign and ratify before it can enter into force.

But we must not be complacent. The Arms Trade Treaty was conceived as a response to the devastating consequences to a poorly regulated arms trade. It’s success will ultimately be judged not on the technical nature of treaty adoption process, but on its effects of saving lives and stopping weapons fuelling terrible atrocities.

The reasons why this treaty remains vital can best be summed up by my friend and colleague Justus Nyanga’aya, Director of Amnesty International in Kenya, who was with me last year in New York at the UN. Justus was attacked and almost killed in his own home in December last year, and in his own words “The only reason I’m alive is because my attackers ran out of bullets”

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