Ya'alon: Signing UN Arms-control Treaty Puts Israel at Risk

Defense minister says the treaty, which prohibits selling arms that could be used for war crimes, may pose a risk for Israel and the military.

Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen
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Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, on the backdrop of Iranian missiles Israel seized en route to Gaza.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon is resisting ratification of the United Nations-sponsored Arms Trade Treaty, saying it poses risks for Israel and the military.

Some government officials say Israel should at least sign the treaty, which creates no obligation.

The treaty was negotiated during 2012 and 2013 and adopted by the United Nations in April 2013 to establish uniform standards for trading in conventional weapons and to improve oversight of such trade. It has been signed by 118 countries, but so far only 32 governments have ratified it, among them Germany, Italy and Great Britain. The treaty goes into effect only when 50 governments ratify it. The United States signed the treaty in September, but has not ratified it. Israel has not signed it.

The treaty says a state will not allow arms exports if at the time an export license is being considered, it is known “that the arms or items would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians or other war crimes defined by international agreements to which the State is a party.”

The treaty also says that if the weapons export is not prohibited based on this clause, the state must assess whether the arms or materiel could potentially be used to: contribute to or undermine peace and security, commit or facilitate a violation of international human rights law or commit or facilitate an offense under international conventions relating to the prevention of terrorism or international crime to which the exporting state is a party.

Israeli law relating to oversight of defense exports includes a prohibition on making arms deals with any state the UN Security Council has imposed an arms embargo on. According to attorneys involved in Israeli arms exports, the significance of the treaty is that it requires the exporting state, before signing any weapons contracts, to conduct a meticulous investigation of what the weapons are meant to be used for, even when there is no state of war.

In a letter from Haim Blumenblatt, the defense minister’s chief of staff, to MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) this week, Blumenblatt writes, “Most of the risks the treaty poses to Israel and the IDF will apply to Israel whether it joins the convention or not, because they are also connected to the implementation of the treaty by other countries, and not by Israel.”

While Blumenblatt did not explain what the risks are, the letter hints the treaty could pose difficulties not just for Israeli arms exports, but also for its arms imports. Blumenblatt implied as much when he wrote that “signing the treaty is liable to influence various aspects connected to exports from the United States.”

While the United States has signed the treaty, several U.S. senators and congressmen are pressuring U.S. President Barack Obama not to ratify the treaty, or to try to implement it without actually ratifying it. These opponents say the treaty could “impede our ability to sell arms to allies such as Israel and Taiwan.” The United States’ signing of the treaty has not affected its defense aid to Israel, defense officials noted.

For the past two years, Israel has been debating whether to sign the treaty, with both Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry officials saying they believe Israel should sign it.

“Signing the treaty, as opposed to ratifying it or acceding to it, does not create any legal obligation to uphold its provisions,” said a defense source. “Signing it means that the signatory state commits not to take any steps that would obstruct the goals or objectives of the treaty.”

Ya’alon is opposed to ratifying the treaty and implementing it in Israel. Zandberg, the Meretz MK, however, believes the treaty should be both signed and ratified.

“The treaty is an international commitment to the fact that Israel belongs to the family of nations that considers the potential damage that the weapons that countries export and import can cause,” she said yesterday. “This is an economic branch, of exports and imports that causes the deaths of human beings, and certainly [for] Israel, which is a country that develops a wide variety of sophisticated weapons and arms, it also creates responsibility. I, as a citizen, want to know what this is used for in the world and whether this whole global arms industry, beyond the economic profit, also takes responsibility for the damage, dangers, and violence it helps disseminate.”

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