Editorial: A small step on arms – but a good one

It's easy to be cynical about the arms treaty. But that cynicism can be overdone

It’s easy to be cynical about the treaty approved this week by the United Nations General Assembly that aspires to regulate the international arms trade.

To be sure, the majority in favour was impressive – 154 of the 193 member states voting for the treaty, only three against. Those last named moreover were Iran, North Korea and Syria, a trio of pariahs that might be described as an updated version of George W Bush’s “axis of evil”. Little surprise there.

But look a little deeper and the outcome is less encouraging. The 23 abstainers included Russia and China, two of the world’s biggest arms exporters. The biggest of them all, the US, which accounts for around a third of the estimated $70bn of global arms sales, did back the treaty. But the US gun lobby vows to oppose it as a potential threat to an American’s right to bear arms, so ratification by the US Senate is anything but assured.

Thus even when the treaty does come into force, it may be ignored by many of the big powers. Not that this would be a first in the chequered history of the UN, whose effectiveness is never more than the sum of the individual wills of its most important members. Nor does the treaty contain a stringent enforcement mechanism. The net result might simply be to push arms trading, an opaque business anyway, even further underground.

But the cynicism can be overdone. The treaty is a small but unprecedented step to regulate a business that has been midwife to devastation, loss of life and human rights abuses around the world. It will not halt the carnage in Syria, but as John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, said, the vote will help reduce the risk that the global arms trade will be used to further “the world’s worst crimes, including terrorism, genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes”. Even the tiniest reduction in that risk must be welcomed.