IN 1988, a bronze sculpture of Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd’s knotted gun was placed outside the United Nations headquarters in New York. As Kofi Annan, former U.N. secretary general and Nobel Peace laureate, remarked at its unveiling, the sculpture isn’t just a cherished piece of art, but a powerful symbol that encapsulates in a few simple curves the greatest prayer of humanity: not for victory, but for peace.
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Inside the U.N. building is a mosaic representing all the nations of the Earth, accompanied by Jesus’ words, “Do unto others what you would have others do unto you.” For many seasoned peace campaigners, myself included, this prayer was partly answered when the 193-nation U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly approved the Arms Trade Treaty in April.
The treaty seeks to regulate the international trade in conventional arms, from small arms to tanks, combat aircraft, and warships. It aims to foster peace and security by putting a stop to the destabilizing flow of arms to conflict regions. This process cannot, however, be only a matter of negotiation and numbers. What needs to undergird the treaty is protecting humans, made in God’s image. What needs to motivate the treaty is ensuring the possibility of what philosopher Hans Jonas called “the permanence of an authentically human life on Earth.”
The statistics are frightening. Globally, one person dies every minute from armed violence. This treaty will help halt the uncontrolled flow of arms and ammunition that fuels wars, atrocities, and rights abuses. The devastating humanitarian consequences of the two-year war in Syria, a war fueled in part by the irresponsible export of arms, underline just how urgently this treaty is needed.
What the conflict in Syria has exposed, as elsewhere, is the direct relationship of the arms trade to violation, rape, and murder, particularly of women and girls. Sexual violation has become the concomitant weapon to rockets, bombs, and guns.
Securing the Arms Trade Treaty has been a long, arduous journey, and there is much that needs to be done. To date, 83 countries have signed the treaty but only four have ratified it. As with other multilateral treaties, it will only come into force when it is ratified by 50 countries.
Secretary of State John Kerry has indicated that the U.S., the world’s number one arms exporter, will sign the treaty as soon as the official translations of the document are completed, but he has given no indication as to when the U.S. might ratify it. Unfortunately, the Obama administration faces an uphill ratification battle in the Senate, which passed a resolution in March opposing the treaty. An Arms Trade Treaty without the active support of the U.S. would have little impact.
Though the treaty doesn’t explicitly regulate domestic gun sales, the National Rifle Association has been a vocal critic, arguing that it threatens the rights and privacy of U.S. gun owners. Sadly, this lobbying strategy, which presents the knotted gun as an anti-American symbol, seems to be paying off. One hundred thirty members of Congress wrote to President Obama on May 30, pressing him not to sign the treaty on the grounds that it threatens “our national sovereignty and our constitutional rights.”
As a seasoned observer of U.S. politics, it saddens me to think that this treaty, which could do so much to foster peace and security in our fragile world, could be held hostage to misinformed views circulating on Capitol Hill.
Until the treaty is signed, sealed, and delivered, it is important that we continue to demand a robust arms treaty that will truly “protect the human,” as the Amnesty International slogan has it. The responsibility of all believers, from all traditions, is to understand and demonstrate that the search for a personal God, and respect for the human, belong together.
Bishop Peter Price is former bishop of Bath and Wells of the Church of England and member of the House of Lords. He is chair of Conciliation Resources and adviser to the archbishop of Canterbury on peace and justice issues.