Technology & Trade

The Arms Trade Treaty

in Program

Click here to watch the ATT event hosted by Stimson.

By Rachel Stohl – In July 2012, States will negotiate a legally binding Arms
Trade Treaty to develop the highest possible common international standards for
the transfer of arms at the United Nations. Unlike many other weapon
categories, the more than $40 billion annual market for conventional weapons
trade is relatively unregulated globally. While a myriad of national laws and
some regional agreements form a patchwork of regulations, there are no
comprehensive common global standards for the conventional arms trade.  Over the last 30 years, piecemeal attempts
have been made to this end; in particular, to close dangerous loopholes that
have allowed arms to flow to human rights abusers and terrorists, perpetuate
conflicts, and undermine development with impunity.

The actual text of the Treaty will not be negotiated until
July. But, during preparatory meetings (Prepcoms) held in 2010, 2011, and
February 2012, States discussed details of what types of things could or should
be in an ATT. States focused on the potential elements of the treaty, the scope
of the treaty, the criteria that States could use to determine whether to
transfer arms, the national measures necessary to implement a treaty, and the
types of assistance States might need to fulfill their obligations to the
Treaty among many other topics.

The scope of the Treaty might include all conventional
weapons, which could include small arms and light weapons, ammunition, or even
their parts and components. Scope also refers to which activities and
transactions will be covered by the Treaty, such as imports, exports,
transfers, transit, and brokering amongst many others.

The criteria of the Treaty could include a prohibition of
arms sales to countries if there is a substantial risk that the arms could be
used to commit serious violations of international law, such as genocide,
crimes against humanity or war crimes. Or the Treaty could say that States
should not transfer weapons that are used to support terrorist acts. Or, the Treaty
could simply give a list of things that States should take into consideration
when determining whether to authorize an arms transfer, such as socio-economic
or sustainable development.

The ATT will be implemented by States at a national level. It
will not create a supra-national body to enforce the ATT, or tell States what
they can and cannot transfer and to whom. National sovereignty is paramount to
the ATT and it will likely describe what States
should include in their national systems, but not give the precise details of how to do it.

As part of the Prepcom work, the Chairman of the process,
Roberto Garcia Moritan of Argentina,
summarized the disparate views of Member States and produced a Chairman’s draft
paper. This draft paper is a reference document for the negotiations, but is not
the basis for the negotiations or a draft of the Treaty. It includes many of
the ideas proposed by Member States and as a result, has contradictory,
unclear, and undeveloped ideas, as well as things that are completely
impractical or unnecessary. Although that has been frustrating for many States
and for civil society, the paper was useful in providing the structure of an ATT,
it allowed States to present ideas and views concerning an ATT, and it was an
important confidence building measure for all States to demonstrate that no one
was pre-judging or developing an ATT in advance.

The goal of the July negotiations is to develop an ATT with
common international standards for the global trade in arms and that to curb irresponsible
and illegal trade.  The ATT would
presumably make it more difficult to justify arms transfers to governments that
will use them against internal opposition or to commit human rights abuses.
Clearly, the ATT is not a panacea, but it will help create norms of State
behavior with regard to arms transfers and give States another tool in their
foreign policy tool boxes to highlight particular inimical sales.

The ATT needs to be practical in order to be effective-balancing
worthy aspirations and ideals and the reality of the global arms trade. It will
not help to have a Treaty that legitimizes irresponsible transfers nor one that
creates a burdensome system that hinders the legitimate commercial trade in
arms. The ATT is not about banning weapons. It is about developing, for the
first time, rules of the game. It is about developing clear international
standards for the global trade in arms. We will see how States do in July.

Photo Credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Capt. Howard G. Mariott,

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