US Joins Efforts Toward a Global Arms Trade Treaty: UN Resolution Promises Negotiations to Begin in 2010

Tasneem Jamal Conventional Weapons

Kenneth Epps

The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2009 Volume 30 Issue 4

In a dramatic volte-face in October, the US government announced its support for the multilateral negotiation of an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). Treaty advocates welcomed the announcement by the world’s largest arms supplier. Many also expressed concern at the condition the US placed on its support.

Impact of resolution vote

In late October the United States joined a large majority of states to vote in favour of a UN First Committee (FC) resolution to establish a timetable for negotiating a “strong and robust” arms trade treaty.1 The US vote was anticipated – in prior ATT sessions US delegates had signaled that a change to the US position was in the works – but it was no less significant for that. The positive vote was a complete reversal of the persistent and solitary “no” the Bush administration had instructed for earlier US votes on the ATT. It meant that for the first time the world’s largest arms exporter was backing the UN process to produce an ATT with the “highest possible common international standards” to control transfers of conventional weapons.

The FC resolution vote was heralded by states and civil society groups alike as a major step forward in the ATT process. In a press release, the NGO-led Control Arms campaign (2009) “welcomed the historic breakthrough at the UN … and called on all States to negotiate a truly effective Treaty.” Following routine secondary approval by the UN General Assembly in December, the agreement will establish negotiating sessions over the next three years, culminating in a four-week treaty conference in 2012. Beginning in July 2010 all scheduled ATT sessions at the United Nations will be devoted to constructing a legally binding convention.

The demand for consensus

Enthusiasm among ATT advocates for the result of the vote was tempered by concern for a worrisome condition the US placed on its support for the resolution. In discussions with the co-authors (seven states led by the United Kingdom), the United States insisted that the resolution include: “the United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty will be undertaken … on the basis of consensus.” The US made clear that the consensus requirement was non-negotiable and that if it were removed from the resolution text the US would withdraw its support for the ATT process.

The position of the US delegation was hardened by a statement released by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in mid-October during the period the draft resolution was being circulated to other states by the coauthors. In the statement Clinton (2009) noted that “the United States is prepared to work hard for a strong international standard [to control conventional arms transfers] by seizing the opportunity presented by the Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty at the United Nations.” The statement went on: “As long as that Conference operates under the rule of consensus decision-making needed to ensure that all countries can be held to standards that will actually improve the global situation by denying arms to those who would abuse them, the United States will actively support the negotiations.”

The US argued that consensus was needed to ensure the widest support for the treaty and to avoid loopholes that would weaken its effectiveness. The US would have the power of veto to ensure that the treaty met high international standards. However, the US view was not widely shared, especially among some of the strongest ATT supporters.

Several states and many civil society observers expressed grave concern that the consnsus requirement would lead to the opposite of US expectations. They argued that a conference operating “on the basis of consensus” would provide all participating states with the power of veto, leading to deadlocked negotiations or a treaty reduced to the lowest common standards. They cited the experience of UN negotiations in other arms control and disarmament forums – most notably in the UN Conference on Disarmament – where consensus rules of procedure have allowed single states to hold up progress for years.

Preparing for the 2012 conference

Despite the efforts of a few supportive states to amend the consensus requirement, the First Committee resolution with the text the United States required was overwhelmingly approved on October 30 by 153 states. Nineteen states abstained on the vote, including major exporters Russia and China and major importers India and Saudi Arabia and other Middle East states. (Zimbabwe was the sole state to vote no.) The task now for advocates of a strong Arms Trade Treaty is to ensure that the Preparatory Committee sessions established by the resolution for 2011 and 2012 are used effectively to prepare the ground for the 2012 treaty conference.

For its part, the US has committed to making good use of the PrepCom sessions. In a statement to the First Committee, US Ambassador Donald Mahley (2009) called “for all the participants in these discussions to recognize the enormous responsibility of using the scarce available time to utmost effectiveness.… We must…use each day to put forward for serious consideration and review substantive proposals, not of what should be excluded from a legally-binding document, but of what should be included to establish the high standards and effective implementation that will be required for a successful product.” Mahley pledged that the US would bring to the next meeting “a menu” of requirements for “successful deliberations on an ATT.”

There is no doubt that the two October decisions — the US announcement that it will join multilateral efforts toward an ATT and the First Committee resolution to launch treaty negotiations next year – have combined to boost the UN ATT process to a more dynamic, high-stakes level. It is also apparent that the US is prepared not only to participate but also to provide leadership in the ATT process.
What is less clear is the extent to which the US view of high treaty standards corresponds to the “global principles” based on international norms and responsibilities that are advocated by long-time ATT supporters. There are also widely ranging views on how the consensus requirement will shape the outcome of the treaty conference in 2012. US support, coupled with the need for consensus, may prove a mixed blessing.



  1. UN document A/C.1/64/L.38/Rev.1 available here.


Clinton, Hillary Rodham. 2009. U.S. support for the Arms Trade Treaty. US Department of State, October 14.

Control Arms Campaign. 2009. World’s biggest arms traders promise global arms treaty. News release, October 30.

Mahley, Donald A. 2009. U.S. Statement by Ambassador Donald A. Mahley delivered to the Conventional Weapons Segment of Thematic Debate, First Committee of the 64th United Nations General Assembly. United States Mission to the United Nations, October 19.

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