At UN, a welcome treaty on small arms trade could benefit threatened wildlife

Elephant ivory held in an African storeroom.The United Nations General Assembly has overwhelmingly approved a new treaty aimed at regulating the global trade in conventional weapons – handguns, small and large-caliber assault rifles, and even tanks, helicopters and small aircraft, to name a few. 

Like with all treaties, enforceability remains a concern, but the global agreement is a welcome step in the battle to keep deadly weapons out of the hands of criminals, including criminals who kill elephants, rhinos, and other critically endangered animals for illegal wildlife trade. 

The text of the treaty was approved by a vote of 154-3 during the First United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty.

Next, countries must ratify the treaty in order for it to take effect. 

The United States, the largest overall exporter of conventional weapons, supported the treaty, though ratification will be difficult given opposition among domestic gun-rights advocacy groups.

China and Russia, also big sellers of small arms, including for Russia’s part the infamous AK-47, abstained from the vote, citing concerns over effectiveness and a lack of a ban on outright sales to “rebel” groups. 

The potential benefit of the treaty for endangered wildlife is this: Criteria must be developed by exporting countries to ensure that the importing country won’t allow the use of the weapons for human rights abuses, terrorism, or organized criminal activities such as the large-scale poaching crisis now plaguing elephants and other species in Africa. Arms embargoes would occur, the theory goes, before genocide or sustained violence or mass criminality can occur, not after.

By any account, the organized, military style siege against wildlife in Africa and other parts of the world perpetrated by nefarious non-state actors should qualify as “an offence under international conventions or protocols relating to transnational organized crime” under Article 7(b)(iv) of the draft text.

Though not a silver-bullet, so to speak, in the fight against wildlife crime, any arms control is a good thing. Especially since gun violence typically occurs where guns are easiest to get and use with impunity – such as in developing African nations, many of which it should be noted supported the treaty, and are perhaps the most hopeful of all about its benefits. 

And, if American or Chinese or Russian or European weapons are being used to slaughter elephants and the rangers who protect them, the citizens of those countries deserve to know about it and demand change.

The short term impacts of the treaty will likely be negligible – the treaty doesn’t take illegal weapons out of the hands of criminals or rogue governments or militant groups like those engaged in poaching and global wildlife trafficking. 

It will, however, contribute to a long term solution where transparency in arms trade helps bring criminals and their networks (“unauthorized end-users” in treaty-speak) to justice for their inhuman and inhumane activities.  

-- PT

For more information about our efforts to stop the illegal trade of wildlife products, visit our campaign page.

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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
President and Chief Executive Officer
Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Dr. Elsayed Ahmed Mohamed, Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa
Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa
Dr. Joseph Okori
Regional Director, Southern Africa and Program Director, Landscape Conservation
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Regional Director, Russia & CIS
Regional Director, Russia & CIS
Faye Cuevas, Esq.
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Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
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Executive Vice President
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
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Pauline Verheij, Program Manager, Wildlife Crime
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Peter LaFontaine, Campaigns Manager, IFAW Washington, D.C.
Campaigns Manager, IFAW Washington, D.C.
Rikkert Reijnen, Program Director, Wildlife Crime
Program Director, Wildlife Crime
Country Representative, Germany
Country Representative, Germany
Staci McLennan, Director, EU Office
Director, EU Office
Tania McCrea-Steele, Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime
Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy