David Miliband: We badly need a treaty to control the arms trade

It is bizarre that we've treaties to stop nuclear arms, but not to stop weapons flooding into conflict zones

War was a defining symbol of the 20th century, with tens of millions dead. Today conflicts still blight large parts of Africa and Asia. We have seen the fighting in Georgia, on Europe's doorstep. Are we destined to repeat the last century's mistakes?

Oxfam has calculated that Africa loses around $18bn (£10bn) per year due to wars, civil wars, and insurgencies. According to Oxfam's research, globally, an estimated 1,000 people die every day due directly to the use of small arms.

Organisations like the United Nations, the Red Cross and the charities do a great job after conflicts start. But the drivers of continued high levels of conflict in the 21st century are all too evident.

Climate change for one will drive competition between and within countries for water supplies and force population movement caused by desertification or changing patterns of farming. Demography, too, will put pressure on resources and drive inter-communal tensions. International organisations and Governments need to raise their game at preventing conflicts in the first place.

A key element in helping prevent conflicts, and making them less deadly when they occur, are better controls on arms supplies. Weapons themselves don't cause wars, but they are the fuel that keeps them burning. Those who trade irresponsibly in arms don't care what the impact of their trade will be on innocent people around the world.

We need a global, effective, Arms Trade Treaty. It is bizarre that while treaties and conventions have existed for several decades to control the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, there is no equivalent global arrangement to stop weapons flooding into conflict zones.

There is a patchwork of arms export control systems across the world but they are inconsistent where they overlap; in many cases there are gaps between them. Irresponsible suppliers – both state and non-state – exploit these gaps and inconsistencies to trade weapons and ammunition to places where they are used to fuel conflict, to oppress or intimidate, or for other human rights abuses.

The aim of an Arms Trade Treaty is to have a globally agreed set of standards to regulate the trade in all conventional arms. It would make the legitimate trade in arms more straightforward and reliable because it would introduce common global standards. It would make it a legal obligation for all countries to adopt uniform and high standards against which they would assess their arms exports to ensure that arms did not end up in the wrong hands. These standards would include the recipient country's respect for human rights and international humanitarian law.

If we can achieve this, then putting an end to arms being used for human rights abuse, repression, terrorism, and undermining social and economic stability and development, can become an achievable goal.

In 2006, the UK worked with Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan and Kenya to set the ball rolling and introduce a draft UN resolution calling for a global Arms Trade Treaty which was supported by 153 countries. In 2007, there was an unprecedented level of response to calls from the UN secretary general for views on the scope and feasibility of this treaty; over 100 countries submitted views. Now we need to take this forward at the UN when we meet later this month to ensure the momentum is maintained. This is urgent work. A UN Group of Governmental Experts is concluding its review of ideas and suggestions from governments around the world on the feasibility and scope of this treaty.

We want to generate more support and understanding of the issues surrounding this treaty now and broaden the discussion. It is an issue that needs to be embraced by governments and NGOs but it should also be important to industry, academics, "think-tanks", and religious leaders. That's why today I will be meeting with representatives from the business community, NGOs and from a range of religious communities to discuss the issues and the benefits that this treaty will offer. We want as many people, from as many sectors of society as possible, to support the aims of the treaty.

Less than two years ago, only around 40 countries had expressed support for such a treaty. Now, over three-quarters of the countries of the world have acknowledged publicly the need for a treaty. It can be achieved, and we must work to achieve it.

The author is the Foreign Secretary