Churches call for arms treaty backing 'to save lives'

By staff writers
June 6, 2013

Nearly 70 governments have now signed the world’s first Arms Trade Treaty at the United Nations as it opened for signatures this week.

Churches in dozens of countries urged them to do so in order to keep up the momentum from successful negotiations until the new treaty takes effect.

Signatories included states that export arms and states where imported arms fuel violence.

The high turnout on the first day of signing mirrored the broad support for controlling arms sales, which brought nearly 100 churches and related organisations into the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) two-year campaign for the treaty.

“Sign early” was the message that ecumenical campaigners gave to 24 governments in recent days – 14 of them in Africa, the continent that has suffered most from unregulated arms sales.

Major arms exporters Germany, United Kingdom and France took part in the first day of signing, as did smaller exporters such as Norway and Sweden. The world’s largest arms producer and exporter, the United States, said it would sign later. Russia, China, India and others abstained from the treaty vote and have not indicated if they will sign.

The human cost of illicit arms trading has been the focus of church advocacy for the arms treaty to as many as 47 countries when negotiations peaked earlier this year. In April, 156 countries voted for the treaty, a milestone in bringing the multibillion-dollar arms exports under control. The treaty will take effect once 50 countries have ratified it.

In the meantime, without these new binding global controls, some 2000 people will continue to die each day from armed violence.

When the treaty is in force and working, it will be more difficult to supply the arms that are fueling the ongoing bloody conflict in Syria. Until then it remains easier to sell bullets, bombs and deadly weapons than it is to sell bananas or pineapples.

Given the geographic location of WCC member churches and related organisations in different regions, the WCC-led campaign was able to speak with one voice to four different kinds of governments, those that make and sell the most weapons; those that have suffered the most from irresponsible arms trading; those that want the arms trade to be reformed, and those that may not be focused on the issue but see its value.

The 'Ecumenical Campaign for a Strong and Effective Arms Trade Treaty' developed out of a WCC Central Committee action in 2011. A campaign network was formed in mid-2011 during the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation Churches in Kingston, Jamaica.

Churches and church ministries in 40 countries joined the campaign. Uganda, DR Congo, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Sweden, Germany, Norway, India, South Korea, Australia and Papua New Guinea were some of the countries involved. There was close collaboration with Catholic and Evangelical groups.

African churches and governments played a key role in the campaign. Countries heavily affected by decades of irresponsible arms sales stood together and made their voices heard.

A key demand was that the treaty must include small arms and light weapons, plus ammunition, or it was not the treaty that Africa needed. Two major players in the negotiations, the US and China, both took note of the African position. Changes in their stance followed, and the negotiations were able to continue.

In the end, the treaty that opened for signature this week addresses much of what the WCC adopted as policy for the campaign, even though it falls short at various points.

For the first time, a global treaty covers small arms and light weapons, ammunition, human rights violations, international humanitarian law and gender-based violence.

It bans exports of conventional arms where there is knowledge that weapons could be used in war crimes, genocide, attacks against civilians and other grave breaches of international humanitarian law.

Support for the treaty from so many states, including major arms exporters, will put pressure on states that abstained to reform their practices

Members of the ecumenical campaign continue to work so that more governments will sign and then ratify the long-awaited treaty.

[Ekk/3]

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