Getting Older But Not Wiser: the Arms Trade Treaty’s First Birthday

A year after the adoption of the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty, the pace is starting to pick up on state action to ratify the treaty. But acceleration of the global arms trade and recent irresponsible deals by treaty ratifiers suggests that state behaviour has yet to catch up to the ideals that sit at the heart of the ATT. A focus on the consistent and long-term blowback of irresponsible trading might go some way to convincing states to start to practice what they preach.

An ex-combatant holds up munitions in Attécoubé, Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. Source: UN Photo (Flickr)

An ex-combatant holds up munitions in Attécoubé, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Source: UN Photo (Flickr)

April 2nd marked the first anniversary of the adoption of the much celebrated Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the world’s first treaty to establish common standards of international trading in conventional weapons and which, in turn, aims to  ‘ease the suffering caused by irresponsible transfers of conventional weapons and munitions’. 118 states have signed so far, with 31 ratifications including, as of last week, the UK, France and Germany, each a major exporting state. Of the rest of the P5+1, the US has yet to ratify and Russia and China, both of which abstained from voting for adoption of the treaty, have yet to sign. But despite a recent acceleration in the rate of ATT ratification, hard data shows that the global arms trade is accelerating, with many of the biggest deals continuing to transfer cutting edge technologies from democracies like the UK to autocracies like Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, the ghosts of arms deals past continue to haunt arms producing states as their wares come around to be used against them or their allies. Establishing the norms that the ATT seeks to establish will require exporting states to take a longer-term perspective on trading decisions that acknowledge the destabilising impact of weapons proliferation in fragile regions and the consistent blowback against national security. In short, they must start to practice what they have preached.

New powers, old habits

Data released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) on 17 March chart the steady rise of international arms transfers – including battle tanks, combat aircraft, missile launchers and small arms and light weapons –  with the volume of transfers up 14% in 2009-13 from transfer in 2004-08.  In 2011 alone, the value of all international arms deliveries is estimated at $44.3 billion. This trend is particularly reflected through rising imports to regions such as Africa, where imports by states rose 53% between 2004-08 and 2009-13. Among the BRICs, Brazil’s arms imports increased by 65% in the same time period, while an increase of 111% in the value of its arms imports has made India the world’s largest arms importer.

Beyond the deadly threat inherent these tens of millions of weapons pose to human life – the top five arms exporting countries alone delivered nearly 92 million major conventional weapons in 2006-10 – , these statistics suggest an entrenched belief by existing and emerging powers alike that weapons acquisition is a solution to today’s security challenges. Rather, such militarisation is the source of a number of spiralling security crises that are in turn being dealt with using military approaches, with all the Sisyphean repetition that entails. The current NATO-Russia stand-off over the future of Ukraine is but the most obvious example. Prioritising military solutions also tends to stymie peaceful, sustainable alternatives to reducing insecurity.

What goes around…

At the heart of the decade-long drive towards a consistent standard of arms trade regulation was an acknowledgement of the human cost of misuse and abuse of legally transferred conventional weapons, leading to human rights abuses and prolonging armed violence in countries such as Sudan, Egypt and Libya. Use of weapons in these countries against citizens has been particularly objectionable and Libya inparticular stands as an example of the warped logic of trading weapons to such countries. Following the lifting of its arms embargo in 2004, EU states granted export licenses worth a reported €834.5m from 2004-2009 to the notoriously repressive Libyan Government – weaponry that was subsequently used against Libyan civilians in 2011, leading to international condemnation and, eventually, western military intervention.

Foreign Secretary William Hague signs the instrument of ratification for the Arms Trade treaty, 27 March 201. Source: FCO (Flickr)

Foreign Secretary William Hague signs the instrument of ratification for the Arms Trade treaty, 27 March 2014. Source: FCO (Flickr)

Yet it seems that such lessons must be continually hard learnt.  Sales such as February’s deal to sell 72 British Typhoon fighter jets to Saudi Arabia – listed by the most recent UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office report on Human Rights and Democracy as a ‘country of concern’ – suggest that London is still not choosy who gets its bang as long as it gets the bucks.  In addition to its domestic record of torture, repression and executions, Saudi Arabia sent its forces to Bahrain to assist in violent crackdowns of popular protests in 2011 and is the leading sponsor of Islamist insurgents in Syria. The UK had to revoke 158 arms export licences to the Middle East in 2011 because of concerns about human rights abuses and risk that the exported weapons might be used for internal repression. Yet the UK was found to have another 600 extant licenses to countries such as Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. With these actions in mind, it is  difficult to reconcile such disregard for the spirit of the ATT with the UK’s recent ratification of the treaty.

…Comes Around

Ordinance disposal in El Fasher, North Darfur. Source: UNAMID (Flickr)

Ordinance disposal in El Fasher, North Darfur. Source: UNAMID (Flickr)

In addition to direct abuse within states such as Libya, international security is challenged by further proliferation through diverted weapons from irresponsible states. For example, the 2008 Final Report of the UN Panel of Expertson Sudan found that arms originating from the stockpiles of Sudan, Chad and Libya had been used in attacks by the Justice and Equality Movement in Sudan, a militia group included in the UN Security Council arms embargo on Darfur since 2005. Chain-of ownership tracing by the Panel then identified numerous weapons that originated in Libya to have originally been transferred from Spain, Belgium and Bulgaria.

Inside Libya, the dispersal of weapons stockpiles across the country before the downfall of Colonel Gaddafi’s regime – mortars stashed in disused factories, missiles in abandoned buildings – means that today there is an estimated million tons of weaponry in Libya, and much of it is unsecured. Given that this is more than the entire arsenal of the British Army, it is little wonder that MI6 warned the British government in 2013 that the country has become a ‘Tesco for terrorists’. Indeed, Tripoli’s open air Fish Market has now reincarnated as its biggest arms market and deliveries of new weapons systems are regularly hijacked on delivery. Given the hugely destabilising impact of Libyan arms flows south across the Sahara in 2011-12, not least to Mali, one can only speculate on how much of its arsenal has found its way to Syria.

In Afghanistan, where US-supplied rifles and ammunition have been making their way into Taliban hands for a number of years, the US is currently contemplating  what to do with the $7bn worth of military equipment that will be too expensive to transport from Afghanistan and which will reportedly be of little strategic value to the US once the draw down is complete. As it considers driving some of the equipment over to Pakistan, it seems like the parting gift of the militarised approach in Afghanistan will be the further militarisation of an already deeply unstable region.

Time to practice what they preach

The ATT represents the beginning of an important new international norm on arms transfers that aims to lead to more responsible and transparent trade and, ultimately, consideration of the human cost of the trade itself. But despite a majority vote of 156 votes to adopt the ATT last April at the UN General Assembly, and accelerating pace of ratification, there are still important changes to be made to the behaviour of major arms trading states. Countries such as the UK, which proudly claimed to lead the push towards the ATT and made a grand show of ratifying in the recent ‘Race to 50’ campaign, have yet to exhibit the changes to practice that are at the heart of achieving the core ideals of the treaty. Under the terms of the ATT, states reserve the right to continue trade with whichever states they choose, but if a new norm is to be established, they must start to take seriously the spirit of the ATT, whether they have ratified it yet or not. More attention to the consistent and long-term blowback of irresponsible trading – both in terms of the civilian cost of misuse and costs to national security goals caused by destabilisation of areas like the Sahel – might prove worthwhile in making leading exporters like the UK start to practice what they preach.

Zoë Pelter is the Research Officer of Oxford Research Group’s (ORG) Sustainable Security programme. She works on a number of projects across the programme, including ‘Rethinking UK Defence and Security Policies’ and ‘Sustainable Security and the Global South’. Zoë has worked on conventional arms control issues since 2011. 

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