Charting the Course for an Arms Trade Treaty

Kenneth Epps Conventional Weapons

Kenneth Epps

The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2009 Volume 30 Issue 2

An international arms trade treaty (ATT) would establish much needed universal standards for the authorization of transfers across borders of conventional weapons, ammunition, and related equipment. Although treaty negotiations will be conducted by states, civil society groups that have actively advocated a treaty have provided extensive commentary on the purpose and structure of a treaty. This commentary can be summarized as responses to key questions.

Why is an ATT necessary?

The proliferation and misuse of conventional weapons – and especially of small arms and light weapons – are widely recognized global problems. Easy access to weapons intensifies the impact of violence, prolongs armed conflict, and escalates the risk that armed violence will recur. The control of the movement of conventional weapons is a global human security issue because armed violence is a worldwide problem affecting human rights standards, community development, and state stability.

Virtually all states control the transfer of conventional weapons into and out of their territories. National arms transfer controls are based on the recognition that conventional weapons constitute a special class of commodity, whose movement requires particular supervision and regulation. But worldwide armed violence points to the inadequacy of the current system. Criminals and armed combatants too often have easy access to weapons and there are countless examples of imported arms misused by government forces against civilian populations.

While the transfer of weapons is not the sole factor in weapons accessibility, and certainly not the sole driver of armed violence, it is a central feature of both. Yet no global convention exists to codify state responsibilities regarding the movement of weapons. An Arms Trade Treaty would be the first treaty to establish high universal standards to better constrain the irresponsible transfer of weapons.
Where should an ATT be negotiated?

The United Nations is the preferred site for the negotiation of an ATT because almost all states are UN members and arms control and disarmament are central UN functions. The UN Charter empowers both the General Assembly and the Security Council to develop principles and plans for the control and reduction of weapons. To date UN arms control and disarmament efforts have been directed largely toward weapons of mass destruction – nuclear, chemical, and biological – that pose preeminent threats to all UN member states. Since the Cold War ended two decades ago, the UN system has given more attention to the conventional weapons – particularly small arms and light weapons – that are used every day to threaten, maim, and kill.

Since 2006 the United Nations has been engaged in a process to secure the first wide-ranging global treaty to control conventional weapons. Many UN member states have expressed their support for a legally binding, universal treaty containing high common standards based on international law. A UN treaty would obligate member states to operate under the same principles and responsibilities when authorizing transfers of conventional weapons. When it comes into force, a global ATT should bring coherence to a lethal trade that is currently governed by a wide range of national standards.

Although the United Nations is the preferred forum for treaty negotiations there are recent examples of effective conventional weapons treaties that were constructed outside the UN system. In particular, the 1997 Ottawa Convention on Anti-Personnel Landmines and the 2008 Cluster Munitions Treaty both arose when failed efforts within the UN led to independent initiatives. Although no one is currently advocating that ATT negotiations be taken outside the UN, this option exists if the UN process fails or stalls.

How should an ATT be constructed?

Four major components of an international treaty are required for an effective and comprehensive arms trade convention: 1. scope, 2. parameters, 3. participation, and 4. implementation structure. The absence or inadequacy of any one could seriously weaken the treaty.

1. Scope
The scope of the treaty should encompass the kinds of equipment and the types of transfers to be governed. The equipment covered should include the widest possible range of military materiel, parts, and related services. Indeed, the broader the range the more effective the treaty will be in preventing human and state security threats and abuses.

Much of the equipment can be easily identified, from the complex fighter aircraft constructed from components supplied by many states to the simple firearms built in small artisan shops, because the items are widely acknowledged to be designed for military use. Other equipment, such as “dual-use” equipment, which has both military and civilian applications, and some kinds of police and private security equipment should fall within the treaty scope because they may be used in human rights violations and other infractions of international law. A mechanism to review and amend the scope of the treaty is also needed, to respond, for example, to the development of future pertinent equipment.

Many states already support a wide interpretation of the transactions that should be covered by the treaty.1 These include imports, exports, re-exports, temporary transfers, transshipments from one carrier to another, and in-transit shipments from an exporting to an importing state. The scope of the treaty should extend to both government-sanctioned transfers and commercial trade, covering

  • state-to-state transfers;
  • state-to-private end-user transfers;
  • commercial sales to private or government end-users;
  • leases;
  • transfers of licensed foreign arms production; and
  • loans, gifts, or aid.

An arms trade treaty should also apply to the transactions that facilitate international transfers of conventional arms such as brokering, dealing, transportation, logistics, and financial and legal expertise. International transfers of conventional weapons, ammunition, and associated materiel may be conducted through intricate arrangements involving many actors, complex transportation routes, and opaque financial transactions. It is important to ensure that an ATT covers all aspects of the movement of arms from the supplier to the end-user.

2. Parameters for transfer authorization
The effectiveness of the treaty will also be determined by the standards it requires of states when they authorize arms transfers. These standards are set by the treaty parameters. In submissions on the ATT to the UN Secretary-General in early 2007, many states endorsed the global principles for the parameters of an arms trade treaty that were assembled by the international NGO Arms Trade Treaty Steering Committee (ATTSC), of which Project Ploughshares is a member.2

These principles identify the obligations of states under international treaty and customary law or emerging international norms. They require states to ensure that no transfers of arms or ammunition are authorized if UN Charter obligations would be violated, including, for example, violations of Security Council arms embargoes. They also rule against transfers if there is a substantial risk that the transfer will be used to

  • facilitate serious violations of international human rights law or international humanitarian law;
  • facilitate terrorist attacks, violent crime, or organized crime;
  • adversely affect regional security or stability;
  • seriously impair poverty reduction or socio-economic objectives; or
  • ease corrupt practices.

3. Participation
The ATT will be effective to the extent that states participate by signing and ratifying the treaty. Advocates seek a universal treaty, one with which all states comply. However, even a simple majority of UN member states could establish an effective treaty with important international standards if the early signatories represent an appropriate balance of suppliers and recipients. A large majority of UN members (153 out of 192) supported the 2006 UN General Assembly resolution that began the UN ATT process, “Towards an arms trade treaty.” While some major supplier states, such as China and Russia, and some major recipient states, such as Egypt and

India, abstained in the resolution vote, the decision of just a few of these ATT “skeptics” to endorse the treaty could have a major impact on the movement to universality. The experience of recent related treaties such as the Ottawa landmines convention suggests that a widely supported treaty can create international norms that influence the actions and policies of non-signatory states.

4. Implementation support

Finally, mechanisms are needed to ensure implementation of the treaty. Because decisions to export or import arms will remain state decisions, a comprehensive and universal treaty will be meaningless if states fail, or are unable, to implement its terms. The ATT is intended to set the standards for national policy and practice, with states the agents of these standards.

Effective treaty implementation requires international cooperation and assistance because not all states have the necessary resources and capacities. It is in everyone’s interest that states are given the assistance they need – for example, to improve national legislation or reporting mechanisms or to strengthen border controls.

Arms trade activities are notoriously secretive and corrupt, so confidence in treaty implementation can only come from a high degree of transparency in state authorization of arms transfers. ATT transparency provisions must include regular detailed and comprehensive reports by states to an international registry tasked with releasing full documentation to the public. Inadequate transparency will thwart monitoring of treaty compliance by, among others, the civil society groups that will seek to hold states accountable for arms transfer decisions.

Finally, the treaty must be enforceable. Currently, many multilateral instruments that govern trade in innocuous goods contain penalties for infractions. Surely a response mechanism is more urgently required when signatory states fail to implement or breach the terms of a treaty related to trade in dangerous and potentially destabilizing goods.

What are the next steps?

The second session of the ATT Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG), to be held in New York in July 2009, is expected to approve a report to the UN First Committee (on Disarmament and International Security) on areas of group consensus. States supportive of an ATT may seek to use the OEWG report in a UN resolution calling for the remaining four Group sessions (two are scheduled in each of 2010 and 2011) to negotiate the terms of an ATT. If the resolution is successful, the remaining OEWG sessions will evolve from the current “exchange of views” on an ATT to the more meaningful – and likely more difficult – negotiation of treaty text.

Concurrently with the UN process, civil society groups, led by members of the Arms Trade Treaty Steering Committee, will be pressing governments to become more engaged in the UN ATT process for a comprehensive and effective treaty. With funding support from the UK (and possibly other states), the ATTSC is sponsoring civil society research, campaigning, and advocacy activities across the globe over the next year (see “Project Ploughshares to manage UK funding…”).

These activities will include NGO advocacy during the UN OEWG and First Committee sessions, as well as during regional sessions of states sponsored by the European Union in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia during 2009. The civil society groups will undertake worldwide ATT campaigning activities during a “Global Week of Action” in June. In Canada during 2009 Project Ploughshares will work with other civil society organizations to engage parliamentarians and press government officials to step up Canada’s support for an ATT. Across the globe NGOs will make the urgent case for a universal, comprehensive, and effective ATT to control the spread of the conventional weapons that are the daily, ubiquitous tools of destruction and suffering.



  1. Many states made reference to these elements of the scope of an ATT treaty in their 2007 submissions to the UN Secretary-General on the feasibility, scope, and parameters of an ATT.
  2. See Arms Trade Treaty Steering Committee 2006/2007. The ATTSC consists of Africa Peace Forum (Kenya), Albert Schweitzer Institute (USA), Amnesty International, Asociación para Políticas Públicas (Argentina), Arias Foundation (Costa Rica), Caritas, Friends Committee on National Legislation (USA), International Action Network on Small Arms, Non-Violence International (Thailand), Oxfam International, Project Ploughshares (Canada), Saferworld (UK), Sou da Paz (Brazil), Swedish Fellowship of Reconciliation (Sweden), Viva Rio (Brazil), and the Women’s Institute for Alternative Development (Trinidad and Tobago).


Arms Trade Treaty Steering Committee. 2006 (updated and revised 2007). Compilation of Global Principles for Arms Transfers.

Government of Canada. 2007. Canadian Submission on the Arms Trade Treaty (resolution 61/89).

United Nations General Assembly. 2006. Towards an arms trade treaty: establishing common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms. A/RES/61/89, December 18.

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