UN Arms Trade Treaty – one year on
Arms Trade - Deutsche Welle

UN Arms Trade Treaty – one year on

The UN’s Arms Trade Treaty was opened to signing a year ago, and is already close to the 50 ratifications it needs to enter international law. It represents a sea-change in the regulation of the arms industry.

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It’s been one year now since history was made at the United Nations. On June 3, 2013, after 20 years of gestation, the Arms Trade Treaty was opened for signing, and for the first time ever, the global arms trade was – potentially – subject to international law.

It has now been signed by 118 states, and ratified by 40 of those (in other words, they have adopted the ATT into their own laws). The latest ratifications came through on Tuesday (03.06.2014), leaving  the ATT only ten short of becoming legally binding.

Brian Wood, head of Arms Control and Human Rights at Amnesty International, was one of the four people in the room when the idea was conceived by a small group of NGOs back in 1993. “We started promoting the concept, and Amnesty started giving it legal shape,” he told DW. “At the time we called it a code of conduct, although it was a treaty proposal.”

Amnesty enlisted a number of Nobel Peace Prize laureates to form an initiative, led by former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, to give the campaign an international profile. “Funnily enough [current US Secretary of State] John Kerry, along with a few other Congress people, got a piece of legislation through mandating Bill Clinton to negotiate an international code of conduct,” recalls Wood.

The breakthrough came on October 18, 2006, when the UN General Assembly passed a resolution voting to instruct the UN Secretary General to explore a future arms trade treaty. There were 153 votes in favor, and only one against – from the United States.


Now the US, along with Russia, and China – three of the world’s leading arms exporters – represent the three biggest obstacles to ATT’s efficacy. While the US has signed the treaty – meaning it agrees to adhere to it in principle – Russia has so far expressed only skepticism and China has indicated that it would consider signing if the US ratified, which is unlikely to happen.

“The ATT is an important step forward,” said Malcolm Chalmers, research director at the Royal United Services Institute. “But so far many of the signatories are Western states (who believe they already meet ATT criteria for export regulation). … If it is to make a real difference, however, states like Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia will also need to join. Until at least some of these states take part, it will be a job only half done.”

Mark Bromley, co-director of the arms trade control program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), is similarly cautious. “The speed with which the ATT is approaching the 50 ratifications needed demonstrates the high level of support the treaty has globally,” he told DW. “However, engagement will need to be maintained – particularly by the largest exporters – if the ATT is going to fulfill its promise and bring greater transparency and accountability to the international arms trade.”

What’s the point?

The basic purpose of the ATT is to force countries to adopt common international standards and approval processes for the transfer of weapons across international borders. Signatories also agree to report all their arms imports and exports to a central body every year.

It also requires states to determine whether or not a particular arms transfer could potentially facilitate violations of human rights, acts of terrorism, or international organized crime.

Compromises had to be made along the way, of course. “We would have liked a stricter set of rules on human rights, more transparency, we would have like a more rigorous system of compliance,” said Wood. “And we would have liked better-defined methods for licensing and control.”

Bromley was also skeptical whether ATT will actually make a dent in the overall international arms trade, currently worth some $1.7 trillion (1.25 trillion euros) a year. “At most, the ATT will help to increase the transparency of the international arms trade, create mechanisms for helping states to improve their arms transfer controls, and prompt exporters to halt some of the more irresponsible arms transfers,” he said.

Moreover, Amnesty warned in April of the link between countries dragging their heels on the ATT and the number of atrocities, pointing out that several European Union nations were shipping weapons to regimes that routinely commit human rights violations.

A paradigm shift

Nevertheless, despite the caveats, the interpretive room in certain clauses, and the absence of the world’s major arms exporters the benefits of ATT are important enough. “Given the magnitude of the problem, and the weight of political opinion that had to be shifted, it’s still a positive outcome and a landmark treaty,” said Wood. “It’s a paradigm shift in the thinking on arms control, because previously you either had to ban a weapon because it was inhumane, or you couldn’t do anything except report to the UN what you had or not.”

The ATT, on the other hand, represents a legal system to regulate of the arms trade internationally – which has never happened before.

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