Landmark Step Towards an International Arms Trade Treaty

Tasneem Jamal

Kenneth Epps

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2007 Volume 28 Issue 1

The December vote of the UN General Assembly to launch an international arms trade treaty (ATT) process was a landmark decision. It was prompted by the civil society-based Control Arms Campaign that since 2003 has been key in pressing governments to respond to irresponsible weapons transfers. As ATT discussions in the UN unfold, Project Ploughshares will continue to participate in civil society efforts to promote an effective and comprehensive treaty based on international law.

In an overwhelming demonstration of support for an international treaty to more effectively control the trade in conventional weapons, 153 members of the UN General Assembly (GA) – including Canada — voted in December 2006 to adopt the resolution “Towards an Arms Trade Treaty” approved by its First Committee two months earlier.1 Only one nation – the United States – voted against the GA resolution, as it had in October when it was the sole no-vote against the First Committee resolution. Meanwhile, the 24 abstentions for the GA vote equaled the abstentions during the First Committee vote. States that abstained included some of the major actors in the arms trade, notably suppliers Russia and China and recipients India and Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, the number of supporters increased from 139 to 153, thus providing the GA resolution with the backing of four-fifths of the UN membership.

The success of the General Assembly vote was in large part due to the influential civil society “Control Arms Campaign.” Led by campaign core sponsors Amnesty International, Oxfam, and the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA, to which Project Ploughshares belongs), NGOs from across the world have worked since October 2003 to raise public awareness of irresponsible arms transfers and to press governments to negotiate an arms trade treaty that would establish common transfer standards based on existing commitments under international law. The campaign was most visibly represented by the “Million Faces Petition” that successfully brought together more than a million people worldwide to call for an international treaty.2 Control Arms Campaign representatives also spent much of the fall of 2006 lobbying UN member delegations in the corridors of the United Nations buildings in New York to support the First Committee and General Assembly resolutions. The NGO advocacy work in New York was assisted by NGOs in their home countries calling for governments to support the arms trade treaty process at the UN. In Canada, Project Ploughshares joined Oxfam Quebec, Oxfam Canada, and Amnesty International Canada in successfully advocating Canadian co-sponsorship of the First Committee resolution in October.3

The General Assembly resolution recognizes “that the absence of common international standards on the import, export and transfer of conventional arms is a contributory factor to conflict, the displacement of people, crime and terrorism, thereby undermining peace, reconciliation, safety security, stability and sustainable development.” It acknowledges “the growing support across all regions for concluding a legally binding instrument negotiated on a non-discriminatory, transparent and multilateral basis, to establish common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms.”

The resolution instructs the UN Secretary-General to “seek the views” of UN member states on the “feasibility, scope and draft parameters” for a legally binding instrument and to report a summary of those views to the General Assembly in the fall of 2007. It also instructs the Secretary-General to establish a “group of governmental experts” (GGE) to begin meetings in 2008 on a legally binding treaty and for the GGE to report by the end of the same year.

In response to the activities arising from the resolution, civil society campaigners and ATT advocates will continue to promote a strong international treaty based on six core principles that reflect existing state commitments under international humanitarian and human rights laws and other multilateral obligations.4 During early 2007 NGO members of IANSA will conduct a “People’s Consultation” on the ATT as a grassroots alternative to the UN Secretary-General’s survey of the UN membership. Activists, experts, and communities affected by armed violence will participate in sessions across the globe and the consultation testimony will be used to influence government submissions to the Secretary-General. As a member of the civil society “Arms Trade Treaty Steering Committee,” Project Ploughshares will be participating in the advocacy activities, paying particular attention to Canada’s submission to the UN Secretary-General, and to the possible participation of a Canadian nominee on the GGE during 2008.


  1. A list of the 153 states that voted in support of UN Resolution 61/89 can be found here. The General Assembly resolution can be found here.
  2. In Canada, Project Ploughshares conducted the “Take Action to Control Small Arms” campaign that encouraged Canadians to participate in the Million Faces Petition.
  3. For more detail on the history of the movement to secure an Arms Trade Treaty, and the role that Project Ploughshares has played since the late 1990s, go here.
    4. For an elaboration of the core principles advocated for an ATT, visit the Control Arms website.
Spread the Word