A tool to tackle armed violence

Kenneth Epps Armed Conflicts, Conventional Weapons

Effective implementation of the Arms Trade Treaty will reduce illegal and irresponsible arms transfers

Kenneth Epps

The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 34 Issue 2 Summer 2013

When the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favour of the global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) on April 2 the room burst into loud applause, not least from the civil society representatives watching from the gallery. Civil society organizations such as Project Ploughshares had good reason to celebrate the treaty. More than a decade of their coordinated efforts around the globe had finally produced a meaningful result. Not only does the negotiated treaty have the support of the vast majority of UN member states, but also, as consistently called for by civil society advocates, it can fulfill its humanitarian purpose: to reduce human suffering.

It is widely acknowledged that civil society organizations sparked the treaty discussions that began formally at the UN in 2006. Civil society groups also maintained subsequent support and pressure to see the treaty delivered by the UN system. Many skeptics openly doubted that an effective treaty could emerge from UN negotiations. Yet the ATT stands as testament to the dedication and collaboration of many people, inside governments and out, who persisted in striving for an effective outcome.

Canada was one of 155 states that voted in favour of the treaty—four-fifths of all UN member states. Only three states voted against: Iran, North Korea, and Syria. Not coincidentally, all the naysayers are subject to multilateral arms embargoes. Although the remaining 22 states abstained on the vote—including major arms exporters China and Russia and major importers India and Saudi Arabia—there are expectations that over time these states will join the treaty or at least adhere to global norms arising from it.

The Arms Trade Treaty resulted from negotiations among UN member states, a process that inevitably involved compromise. The product is not an ideal treaty. Nevertheless, the ATT can and should be an important tool in worldwide efforts to reduce armed violence. Effective implementation by states parties of treaty provisions will reduce and could eliminate the illegal and irresponsible arms transfers that feed violence.
The strengths of the treaty outweigh its weaknesses, but the latter need to be acknowledged and addressed. Opportunities for treaty improvement exist.

Treaty strengths
The treaty is a legally binding instrument that contains important universal requirements to raise arms transfer standards across the globe. These include:

A common process (contained in Articles 3, 4, and 5) of national implementation. The treaty provisions require each state to retain, revise, or adopt a national control system for weapons transfers. The control system in turn must use a national control list that, at a minimum, contains the conventional weapons identified in the scope of the treaty. For many states these control systems are weak or do not yet exist. Effective treaty implementation should create or improve national arms trade regulatory systems.

Universal standards for exporting weapons (contained in Articles 6 and 7).
Each state must authorize all exported weapons on its control list. It must deny an export if the recipient state is subject to a UN arms embargo, the export would violate existing relevant international agreements, or if the exporting state has knowledge that the weapons would be used to breach international humanitarian law. Export authorizations must undergo a risk assessment process; authorization must be refused if the assessment determines that there is an “overriding” risk that the exported weapons will be used in violations of human rights or international humanitarian law, for acts of terrorism, or by organized crime.

Small arms and light weapons (SALW) included in the scope of the treaty.
For many states in the global South, this is the class of weapons that demands the most attention and control.

Important provisions on brokering (Article 10), diversion (Article 11), and reporting (Article 13). The treaty requires states to take measures to regulate arms brokers (the go-betweens in arms deals), prevent the diversion of weapons into illegal markets, and report on implementation of the treaty, as well as present annual reports on exports and imports of conventional weapons.

Treaty flaws
The Arms Trade Treaty has significant flaws. These include:

The truncated scope. The treaty applies to the seven major combat weapons categories of the UN Register of Conventional Arms plus, crucially, small arms and light weapons. However, the scope omits a range of significant military equipment categories such as counterinsurgency aircraft and surveillance equipment, as well as such emerging technology as autonomous vehicles and drones. Ammunition and the parts and components for the eight UN Register categories are treated under separate, weaker provisions. States parties are nevertheless encouraged (Article 5) to apply the treaty to “the broadest range of conventional arms.” Thus national control lists could be made (and already are by many countries, including Canada) more inclusive than the specified scope of the treaty.

An insufficiently stringent risk assessment process for national export authorization.
Important assessment criteria are missing. Although many states support risk assessments of corruption and impact on sustainable development as part of the authorization process, both criteria were omitted from the final treaty text. As well, the treaty requires states to deny exports if the assessed risk is “overriding,” but a state’s interpretation of “overriding” could be so extreme that it is never reached, allowing all exports to proceed.

Limited transparency. The treaty requires each state party to submit an annual report that “may exclude commercially sensitive or national security information.” Since the treaty does not define this information, states can interpret these exemptions very broadly. Moreover, states are not required to report their transfers of ammunition and weapons parts and components.

Treaty improvements
There will be future opportunities to address these weaknesses. Some elements may be strengthened through clear and common interpretation of terms by states parties. For example, if most states indicate that they interpret the term “overriding” to mean “substantial,” as many argued during negotiations, the common interpretation could build an international norm for this term. Similarly, as noted above, states could define and declare national control lists to include all conventional weapons or at least the extensive list of weapons that most exporting states currently use. This would create a more comprehensive international norm for scope.

Importantly, the treaty includes an “amendments” provision (Article 20) that allows for future improvements to the treaty. In earlier treaty drafts amendments were to be decided by consensus of states parties, potentially condemning the process to single-state vetoes. Fortunately, the final text allows—after “all efforts at consensus have been exhausted”—for amendments to be adopted by a three-quarters majority vote. This provides much more hopeful prospects for future changes that strengthen the treaty.

The ATT will enter into force 90 days after the fiftieth signatory state ratifies the treaty. Expectations are for this process to take two or three years—quite quickly for the UN system. Following entry-into-force states parties are bound by treaty obligations. Many states will need international cooperation and assistance to meet these obligations. Many more, perhaps all, will benefit from independent monitors (such as civil society organizations) that assess their progress in meeting treaty commitments.

Years of effort preceded the adoption of an Arms Trade Treaty that has the potential to bring the international arms trade under meaningful control. The work to realize that potential has now begun.

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