Arms Trade Treaty: Stumbling But Then a Step Forward in 2008

Kenneth Epps

Kenneth Epps

The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2008 Volume 29 Issue 4

A UN experts group report on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in 2008 was disappointing. Yet a broadly supported UN resolution late in the year should advance ATT negotiations in 2009 if civil society organizations and supportive states like Canada step up their advocacy for strong, common arms transfer controls based on international law.

The world is reaching the crossroads where governments must decide which approach to take in order to control the increasingly globalized trade in conventional arms. If the current practice of allowing irresponsible transfers of military and security equipment and related items across borders is allowed to continue, millions more lives and livelihoods will be destroyed and the fundamental human rights of many more people will be seriously violated. (AI 2008)

These opening words of the Amnesty International report, Blood at the Crossroads: Making the Case for a Global Arms Trade Treaty,1 released in September, communicate the urgency that drives civil society advocates of a treaty to control the international transfer of conventional weapons. The report documents nine case studies in which arms transfers have contributed to recent serious human rights violations. These cases underline the necessity of a binding global treaty, based on universal principles, to effectively control the arms trade.

Progress toward an ATT

The past year belatedly saw progress toward UN negotiation of an international arms trade treaty. Most visibly, a group of governmental experts appointed by the UN Secretary-General met three times during 2008 before issuing a report in August.2 The experts group was tasked with examining the “feasibility, scope and draft parameters” of an ATT. With group membership including representatives of states that remain skeptical or even oppose a treaty, the expert report was disappointingly minimalist, and only a few paragraphs were devoted to each of its mandated themes.

The report did little to build bridges across contentious ATT issues and for many its sole attribute was that it did not prevent further UN activity. But in fact, the report did leave a helpful door open. In the concluding section it noted that “further consideration of efforts within the United Nations to address the international trade in conventional arms is required on a step-by-step basis in an open and transparent manner.”

More positively, following the release of the experts group report the UN First Committee approved an October resolution, “Towards an arms trade treaty: establishing common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms.”3 The resolution was supported by 147 states (including Canada), while 18 states abstained and only two states (the US and Zimbabwe) voted against. It called for an “Open Ended Working Group” to meet for a maximum of six sessions beginning in 2009. This working group, which will be open to the participation of all UN member states, will provide the platform for global negotiation of the terms of an arms trade treaty. Beginning with an organization session in February 2009, the Open Ended Working Group will become the UN focal point for ATT advocacy and discussions.

Civil society participation

As with earlier progress toward an ATT, recent UN activity has been prompted and strengthened by the active participation of civil society. In the first half of the year, members of the Control Arms campaign—which includes Project Ploughshares—worked behind the scenes to support and influence the group of governmental experts. In addition to the preparation of background policy papers and analytical reports, civil society groups assisted with the organization of an “intersessional” meeting in July to bring together members of the experts group and officials of interested states such as Canada, which were not represented in the group. The intersessional provided additional expertise on relevant conventional arms control issues and, perhaps more importantly, served to demonstrate the ongoing and widespread public and state commitment to the pursuit of a global treaty.

During autumn UN disarmament meetings in New York, civil society groups worked effectively to ensure that the UN resolution received overwhelming support from member states. Before First Committee meetings began, a worldwide “Week of Action” in mid-September drew media and government attention to the impact of the irresponsible arms transfers that generate the need for an ATT. Public events were held in over 25 countries—many of them currently or recently affected by armed conflict—in all regions of the world.

During First Committee sessions NGOs organized many side events on ATT themes, engaged in advocacy with diplomats in the corridors, and conducted media “stunts” to raise awareness, such as running visits to the 192 UN member missions in New York in 192 minutes with a videotaped ATT message from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Control Arms members also persuaded over 2,000 parliamentarians from across the globe—including 64 Canadian MPs and Senators—to sign a declaration supporting an ATT that was presented during First Committee sessions in October.4

Task for 2009

The First Committee ATT resolution will almost certainly be approved by the UN General Assembly in December and will commit the UN to establish the Open Ended Working Group. This group will permit the active participation of the large majority of states that support an effective ATT, but the process will also permit influence from states that seek to prevent progress on a treaty. Consequently, the onus is on supportive states like Canada to build and relay a persuasive case for effective controls.

Indeed, unless the deliberations of this working group lead to core Treaty principles based on international legal obligations that inter alia prevent threats to peace and security, ensure respect for international humanitarian law, and protect human rights, the world will be no closer to an effective ATT. The task during 2009 and beyond for civil society activists is to continue to do what they have done well since the Control Arms campaign began in 2003: provide evidence of the urgency of arms trade control and argue the efficacy of controls based on high common standards.



  1. Available at Amnesty International’s website.
  2. “Report of the Group of Governmental Experts to examine the feasibility, scope and draft parameters for a comprehensive, legally binding instrument establishing common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms,” UN General Assembly document A/63/334, 26 August 2008.
  3. Available at the IANSA website.  
  4. Read more about Control Arms Campaign activities during 2008.
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