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Can We Sign the Treaty, So People Stop Dying?

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It didn't get much news, given that Syria and Somalia were raging on the front pages. But the world's diplomats recently met in New York to launch the concluding negotiations of a treaty that just might prevent such bloodshed. The Arms Trade Treaty is now set to be finalized in a month-long session in July.

The Arms Trade Treaty would be the first ever global attempt to keep conventional weapons and ammunition, which kill or maim hundreds of thousands of people every year, from falling into the hands of tyrants and criminals. It would oblige all countries to analyze the likely impact of weapons shipments they export or import, or which pass through their territory, and stop any that would reasonably be expected to fuel conflict, poverty, or human rights abuses.

The Treaty's strongest champions are countries that have suffered the pain and sorrow of armed conflict, particularly in West Africa, and of drug-related crime, such as Mexico. They've been buttressed by the Control Arms Campaign, jointly led in Canada by Project Ploughshares, Oxfam, and Amnesty International, which has kept up public pressure in over 100 countries.

Nearly six years have passed since we campaigners celebrated a United Nations vote to begin the treaty process. The negotiations have not been easy. The world's largest arms exporters, including the United States, China, and Russia, have given only grudging support, and have raised procedural obstacles throughout.

Last week's talks were nearly derailed by a disagreement over the meaning of consensus: Does it give every country the right to veto the final treaty? Or does it mean all should accept the views of a large majority? A deal brokered behind closed doors reaffirmed the latter view, but key players say they will opt out if the treaty is not to their liking.

Diplomats face the same conundrum as in the global climate negotiations: A true consensus would produce a much weaker treaty than a majority view, as provisions get watered down to keep countries in the tent. Conversely, a strong and effective treaty may chase away the most important ones, the big arms exporters.

Canada was an early supporter of the treaty process, endorsing soon after the Conservative government took office in 2006, and it has consistently worked to promote a rapid negotiation process.

Prime Minister Harper, however, has never commented on the matter. And last summer, in an apparent attempt to mollify domestic constituencies, Canada proposed exempting hunting and sporting rifles from the treaty, citing the fact that they are legal in Canada.

Such rifles are the drug barons' weapons of choice, as a Latin American delegate pointed out. And calling for exemptions for transfers that Canada considers "legal" invites other states to do the same. The ATT needs common standards because each state's own vary widely. Look at Russia's recent declaration that it will continue to make "legal" transfers of weapons to the Syrian regime.

All the same, the Chair's Draft Papers, written by Ambassador Roberto García Moritán of Argentina and endorsed last week, offer a good basis for a strong outcome. They outline a treaty that would include all non-nuclear weapons and ammunition, would require tracking of all weapons exports and imports, and would base the criteria for judging transfers on solid human rights principles.

During the hours the diplomats huddled over the treaty, some 10,000 people died from armed violence. A killing every minute. Conventional arms are the real weapons of mass destruction.

The momentum is there to end that tragedy. But it will take a groundswell of public pressure to succeed. The Control Arms Campaign has a global online petition. If enough Canadians sign on, perhaps Harper will stop playing politics and back an Arms Trade Treaty with bite.