A top-down approach to sustainable security: The Arms Trade Treaty

Zoƫ Pelter | | November 2012

Issue:Global militarisation

2012 was hailed as a potential landmark year in the push for greater regulation of the global trade in conventional arms. After more than a decade of advocacy to this end, negotiations took place throughout July towards the world’s first Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which is intended to establish the highest possible common international standards for the transfer of conventional weapons.  However, although significant progress was made during the month of intense negotiations, the ATT is not yet open for signature. The future of possible work towards a treaty now lies with the First Committee of the UN General Assembly, as discussions continue about the possibility of a second round of negotiations. As the Committee’s session nears an end, this article explores what role a potential treaty – if reopened for further negotiation - could play in a move towards sustainable security.

The scale of the arms trade is significant; it’s impact, devastating in many parts of the world. From 2006-10, the top five arms exporting countries - the United States, Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom and France - delivered nearly 92 million major conventional weapons* . The recipients of arms transfers include countries such as Sudan, Yemen, Egypt and Libya, where the use of government stockpiles against civilians over the past two years has been particularly abhorrent. However, even as the volume of international transfers continues to increase - by 24 per cent from 2002-2006 to 2007-2011 - there is still no overarching global regulation of the trade. Instead, there exists only a patchwork of national laws and regional agreements that fail to impose any consistent international standard of trade.

This lack of comprehensive global standards to regulate transfers of conventional arms - which range from battle tanks, combat aircraft and missile launchers to small arms and light weapons - has allowed a flow of weapons to actors who use them in contravention of international humanitarian and human rights law, including terrorist groups and human rights abusers. This in turn prolongs conflict, undermining stabilisation and development efforts. Indeed, as 30 high-profile Oxfam and Amnesty International supporters stated in a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in at the start of the July’s negotiation conference:

“Every year an average of two bullets for every person on this planet is produced. With so few global rules governing the arms trade, no one really knows where all those bullets will end up – or whose lives they will tear apart. Under the current system, there are less global controls on the sales of ammunition and guns than on bananas and bottled water. It’s a ridiculous situation. The deadly and poorly regulated trade in arms leads to serious human rights abuses, armed violence, conflict, poverty and organized crime around the world. The lack of clear binding principles governing decisions on international arms transfers combined with patchy, diverse and poorly implemented national regulations are inadequate to deal with the increasingly globalised nature of the arms trade. As a result, irresponsible users are allowed to violate international humanitarian and human rights law.”

If negotiated, the ATT would establish much needed internationally agreed norms of responsible state behaviour with regards to arms transfers; with criteria that aims to prevent the transfer of weapons to the aforementioned irresponsible actors.

What would this mean in practice? An ATT would act to ensure that arms-exporting states have an obligation to conduct comprehensive risk assessments in line with international humanitarian and human rights law before approving international transfers of arms. In so doing, an ATT would provide a crucial delineation of the circumstances under which transfers should not be allowed.

This has important implications. For example, following a government review of arms exports to the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, the United Kingdom revoked 158 licenses because the exports were found to violate two main criteria for the UK’s Consolidated Criteria for arms exports: respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and risk that the exported weapons might be used for internal repression. The impact of certain earlier UK export decisions had become clear in Bahrain in February 2011, when a British-supplied arsenal of crowd control weapons – including stun guns, shotguns, crowd control ammunition and canisters of teargas – was reportedly used by security forces in a brutal crackdown against popular protests**. Although some licenses were revoked, the UK has a further 600 extant licenses to countries such as Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, where rights abuses are notoriously continuing. The aim of the ATT is to ensure that exporting countries consider the dangers to civilians and human rights while deciding whether or not to transfer arms and to prevent transfers where abuse is likely. An ATT is therefore hoped to help stem the flow of arms to actors – state and non-state – who use violent action to undermine rule of law and the international humanitarian laws that seek to protect civilians and sustain security.

The consequences of irresponsible arms transfers reverberate further than governmental misuse. For example, the 2008 Final Report of the UN Panel of Experts on Sudan stated that arms originating from the stockpiles of Sudan, Chad and Libya had been used in attacks by the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) forces in Sudan, a militia group included in the UN Security Council arms embargo on Sudan (Darfur region) from 2005 onwards. In the case of JEM attacks on the city of Omdurman in 2008, chain-of ownership tracing by the Panel identified numerous weapons manufactured in Spain, Belgium and Bulgaria, which had originally been legitimately shipped to Libya . Although many of the weapons were formerly exported to Libya in the early 1980s, the report stood as a clear sign of the danger of legitimately transferred arms leaking into the illicit market from irresponsible end-users. By assessing the responsibility of end-users before transferring arms, the ATT might go some way towards encouraging states to stem the flow of weapons to illicit markets from the back-doors of irresponsible end-users. In turn, it is hoped that it will work against the militarisation of societies that threatens the stability of the majority of civilians. 

Treaty negotiations keenly acknowledged the disproportionate impact of small arms and light weapons (SALW) on civilian populations during and after violent conflict and accordingly, SALW are covered in the scope of the treaty. As noted by the UN office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) ‘small arms are cheap, light, and easy to handle, transport and conceal. A build-up of small arms alone may not create the conflicts in which they are used, but their excessive accumulation and wide availability aggravates the tension. The violence becomes more lethal and lasts longer, and a sense of insecurity grows, which in turn lead to a greater demand for weapons…They are the weapons of choice in civil wars and for terrorism, organized crime and gang warfare.’  Including these weapons type in the treaty’s scope – and therefore extending beyond the UN Register of Conventional Arms – will increase the number of disarmament tools available to tackle the prolific spread of these weapons and their devastating impact and threat to sustained security during and following armed conflict.

Each of these aims seeks to counter a pattern of increasing spread of arms and trend towards militarisation which, far from protecting societies, drives insecurity around the world. This is true for states – with the aforementioned trend towards increased spending for conventional arms and annual increases in world military expenditure from 1998-2010 - but also for civilian society. Around the world, millions of people face the direct and indirect consequences of increased militarisation on a daily basis, whether living under the constant threat of weapons held by local gangs or criminals, or direct trauma, injury or fatality as a result of use of weapons in conflict or terrorist action. In the face of these situations, both where the state abuses civil rights or where the state is unable to protect communities from armed non-state groups, communities often choose to seek further weapons as a means of protection, and so cycles of increased militarisation and violence continue to threaten the stability of societies. By stemming a downwards flow of weapons, and making assessments about the likelihood of irresponsible or abusive use of transferred arms, a treaty of this nature may serve to prevent violent conflict and/or help to make conflict less deadly.

The current draft text does much towards these goals, by including provisions related to record keeping, international assistance and implementation, as well as creating a Secretariat to help signatory states implement the treaty, especially those who may lack the bureaucratic capacity to do so right away. More importantly, it clearly outlines the obligations that signatories would have to conduct comprehensive risks assessments in line with IHL and IHRL before approving transfers and effectively underlines the circumstances in which transfers should not be made.

However, there are still a number of issues with the draft treaty, which at present leaves loopholes in regulation that would allow for on-going abuses as a result of arms transfers if it is used as a base for further negotiations. As outlined efficiently in Control Arms’ recent briefing ‘Finishing the Job: delivering a bullet-proof ATT’ , at present the draft treaty text falls short in a number of ways. Necessary improvements to the draft include: addressing the exclusion of ammunition from the scope of the treaty; the lack of a provision that requires state reports on transfers to be publically available; lack of provisions for states to consider risks that transferred arms may be diverted or used for corruption, against development or in gender-based violence; and current ambiguity about controls when dealing with states not party to the treaty. It will also be vital for key exporting nations such as the United States to be on board with the treaty for it to be effective. If negotiations are re-opened, negotiators must once again carefully navigate the need to sharpen the treaty scope and criteria with a need to have the participation from a majority of states.

There is clearly quite some way to go before the treaty could come into force and be implemented effectively. The ATT clearly cannot act as a panacea for conflict-affected countries, nor will it hinder inter-state arms trade or domestic controls. However, if successfully negotiated and implemented, it could be an effective filter to curb the worst of irresponsible and illicit arms trading. The ATT may currently seem abstracted from the real impact of the arms trade, but in the end, as stated by the Control Arms Campaign, ‘the ATT will be judged according to its success in preventing transfers that risk contributing to or facilitating human suffering’. As UK Ambassador Jo Adamson said at the opening of the First Committee session, with the ATT ‘we have a real live example of where we can make a real difference in the real world to real people.’


*(data on conventional weapons exports and military expenditure derived from SIPRI Yearbook 2012: http://www.sipri.org/yearbook/2012/06)
**All information in this paragraph can be found in the UK Parliament Committees on Arms Export Controls report 'Scrutiny of Arms Exports (2012)'  http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmquad/419/41902.htm 

 Image source: Oxfam









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