UN Arms Embargoes and the Arms Trade Treaty

Tasneem Jamal Conventional Weapons

Kenneth Epps

The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2010 Volume 31 Issue 3

International arms embargoes are imposed by the UN Security Council to prevent transfers of conventional weapons to designated state and non-state targets. UN arms embargoes are legally binding on all UN member states. The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), when negotiations are complete, will be a regulatory instrument to establish high common standards for the transfer across state borders of conventional weapons. As a treaty, it will be legally binding on all states parties.

Common features

Although the two global instruments have distinct purposes – the former to close off weapons transfers to specific parties and the latter to better regulate authorized weapons transfers to all destinations – they share important features. UN member states currently negotiating the ATT would do well to take into account these features and to learn from the many studies of embargo effectiveness.

Moreover, the construction of a robust and effective treaty could help to improve state implementation of arms embargoes.
The lessons of arms embargo monitoring and evaluation suggest that an ATT should include important elements to strengthen treaty provisions and implementation. These elements include:

  • A standard system of “end-use certification” adopted by all states to ensure arms transfers arrive at the approved destination and are not diverted for illegal use;
  • Effective control of the activities of arms brokers and other parties involved in arms transfers;
  • Effective and coherent national controls across the full spectrum of weapons production, transfer, use, and destruction, including adequate transfer authorization procedures, border controls and enforcement mechanisms;
  • Cooperation and assistance among states to build the necessary capacity to ensure that all states parties can implement relevant arms control commitments; and
  • A universal and comprehensive scope of conventional weapons that are subject to state regulation so that control extends to all weapons that may be misused in violations of international law.

Similarly, a negotiated ATT that is comprehensive and robust would also strengthen implementation of UN arms embargoes. To this end treaty provisions should include:

  • Risk assessment criteria based on the responsibilities of states under international law to govern national authorization of arms transfers so that, for example, a substantial risk that weapons would be diverted to illegal end-users would prevent a transfer;
  • Reporting and transparency requirements and procedures to generate more public information on the arms transfer activities of trading states;
  • A treaty secretariat and other treaty implementation mechanisms that could advance liaison with UN bodies responsible for arms embargo implementation and enforcement; and
  • Parameters to prevent corrupt practices, arms transfers to organized crime, and other illicit activities.

Mutual gain

The negotiation of a robust global ATT is an opportunity for UN member states to agree to conventional arms transfer standards that also strengthen implementation of UN arms embargoes. The two UN conventional arms control mechanisms should be mutually supportive and designed to operate in tandem. Together they could make significant contributions to global political stability and security and save lives and livelihoods.

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