Technology & Trade

Arms Trade Treaty Negotiations Set to Resume at United Nations

in Program

This week in New York diplomats will meet to try to finally agree on some rules to govern the international arms trade. The much anticipated result would be a legally binding Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The ATT would develop the highest possible common international standards for the transfer of conventional weapons.

The $85 billion-plus annual global trade in conventional weapons is relatively unregulated today. For decades, states have tried to close the dangerous loopholes that have allowed arms to flow to human rights abusers and terrorists, perpetuate conflicts, and undermine long- term prospects for growth and development. The Arms Trade Treaty, while clearly not a panacea, would try to establish rules of the game and develop a framework for national export control systems. It would not impact an individual citizen’s right to bear arms but, rather, control the flow of dangerous weapons across national boundaries.

The ATT is intended to develop common international standards for the global trade in conventional arms in order to curb the irresponsible and illegal trade and prevent diversion of legal arms sales into the illicit market. Establishing a global arms trade framework would potentially help reduce human suffering that often results from the illegal and irresponsible trade in conventional arms. The impact of an ATT would not be seen immediately, as it would take time for states to develop and enhance national export control systems and begin to incorporate the new norms created under an ATT for when arms sales are ill-advised or prohibited. But in the long run, it would make governments behave in more thoughtfully and deliberately in both their sale and purchase of conventional weaponry.

Starting this week, states will have less than two weeks to finalize a treaty text. The short time means that not every issue in the treaty will be reopened and states will have to decide what issues are most important to “fix” in the existing draft text. The most contentious issues include: the scope of the treaty, particularly the inclusion of ammunition; the types of prohibited arms transfers; and the level of transparency of state exports and imports of conventional arms.

The United State is responsible for 77 percent of the global arms trade and has the “gold standard” when it comes to national export controls and regulations. An ATT would be less meaningful without the United States on board. But U.S. support for an ATT has been lukewarm at best. Although the United States had voted against the ATT process during the George W. Bush administration, the Obama administration has voted in favor of the UN Treaty negotiations and has supported the development of the ATT within certain constraints.  Many UN member states blame the United States for the failure of an agreement in July 2012, but the United States has stated that it is committed to a strong ATT that is implementable and can be signed and ratified by the Congress.

The United States, which produces more than 7 billion rounds of ammunition a year, has also resisted efforts to include ammunition in the ATT, much to the disappointment of some of its closest allies. The U.S. position is based on the belief that including ammunition is impractical and would make no real difference to halting the human suffering caused by the irresponsible trade in arms. However, the United States claims it is open to ideas on specific means by which such a consumable commodity could be effectively and practically accounted for and that would result in a degree of real control consistent with the goals of the treaty.

An ATT would likely not stop Russian arms sales to Syria tomorrow or five years from now. But an ATT would provide another tool to pressure Russia to stop arming Syrian President Bashar Assad’s bloody regime. An ATT would make it more difficult for Russia to justify Syrian arms sales, or any state to sell arms when it is clear that the arms would be used for repression and human rights abuses. Finally, an ATT could provide a comprehensive transparency regime to identify potentially troubling arms sales and to keep pressure on those countries operating outside treaty standards.

John Kerry, when a senator, championed a U.S. Code of Conduct on Arms Transfer, which called on the United States to negotiate an international regime to “promote global transparency with respect to arms transfers, including participation by countries in the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms.” The proposed code of conduct would also “limit, restrict, or prohibit arms transfers to countries that do not observe certain fundamental values of human liberty, peace, and international stability.”  These are the very values at the core of an ATT. The next two weeks will provide Secretary of State Kerry with a fleeting opportunity to turn this rhetoric into reality. As the Obama administration works to respond to the growing epidemic of armed violence in our own country, it is time for Washington to think beyond borders and address the growing scourge of weapons proliferation around the globe.


Photo credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe 


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