UNITED NATIONS – Eighteen countries, including five of the world's leading arms exporters, ratified a landmark treaty regulating the multibillion-dollar global arms trade on Wednesday, giving a significant boost to the campaign for the treaty's entry into force.
The ambassadors of the 18 countries handed over the documents at a U.N. ceremony on the first anniversary of the General Assembly's adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty, which is aimed at stemming the global illegal weapons trade, estimated at between $60 billion and $85 billion. The new ratifications bring the total number to 31, more than half of the 50 needed for the pact to enter into force.
Five of the world's top 10 arms exporters — Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain — turned in their ratification documents at the ceremony. Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, El Salvador, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Malta, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia were the others.
U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson urged all 193 U.N. member states to sign and ratify it without delay.
"Every day, we witness the human cost of the irresponsible transfer of weapons," Eliasson said. "Civilians are still being killed, maimed, or driven from their homelands because weapons and ammunition remain in the hands of warlords, terrorists, human rights abusers and organized criminal gangs."
The 17 European Union members who ratified the treaty on Wednesday issued a joint statement said that by regulating the international arms trade "nations demonstrate their common responsibility to save lives, reduce human suffering and make the world a safer place for all."
They pledged to "spare no efforts" to achieve the treaty's early entry into force and to campaign for universal adherence.
To date, 118 countries have signed the treaty including the United States, but ratification by the U.S. Senate will be difficult because a two-thirds majority is required and there is strong opposition from the powerful National Rifle Association.
The treaty will require countries that ratify it to establish national regulations to control the transfer of conventional arms and components and to regulate arms brokers, but it will not control the domestic use of weapons in any country.
It will prohibit the transfer of conventional weapons if they violate arms embargoes or if they promote acts of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes, and if they could be used in attacks on civilians or civilian buildings such as schools and hospitals.
Anna Macdonald, co-chair of the Control Arms Coalition, which includes hundreds of non-governmental organizations in over 100 countries that promoted the Arms Trade Treaty, said the most powerful argument for its speedy entry into force is "the call of the millions who have suffered from armed violence around the world."
Nowhere is an effective treaty more desperately needed than in the Syrian conflict, which has been fueled by transfers of arms and ammunition from outside parties, she said at the ratification ceremony.
Noting that June 3 will mark one year since the treaty was opened for signatures, she urged countries that have signed to ratify quickly so the treaty can enter into force on June 3, 2014.
She also cautioned that ratifying the treaty will not be enough because the key is to end "business as usual."
"All of the governments ratifying here today can also act to show that these are not just words on paper, and a photo in the press," Macdonald said. "You have the opportunity now to lead by example. All governments are responsible for the arms trade, and all governments need to act to ensure it is brought under control."