Technology & Trade

The Arms Trade Treaty: Race to 50 Ratifications

in Program

June 3 marks the one year anniversary of the opening for signature of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) at the United Nations. In the “Race to 50,” forty countries have ratified the ATT and 118 have signed it. With many European ratifications expected this fall, the ATT is anticipated to enter into force by the end of 2014, three months after the 50th ratification. Indeed, planning for the first Conference of States Parties is already underway and is anticipated to occur in spring 2015.

The ATT is the first global legally binding agreement regulating the international trade in conventional arms, ranging from fighter aircraft and warships to small arms and light weapons. The Treaty lists normative criteria for States to apply when making their arms transfer decisions and outlines common standards governing the global trade in conventional arms.

Although there is widespread international commitment to the values promoted by the ATT, to ensure that the Treaty is worth more than the paper it is written on countries must be properly prepared and install any necessary measures before entry into force. Those committed to a swift entry into force should ensure that moving quickly does not compromise the utility of the Treaty or prevent its ability to have a meaningful impact on curbing the unregulated and illicit trade in conventional arms. 

Specific steps can be taken now to foster significant and measurable impact on stemming the global illicit arms trade and furthering global regulations for the legal arms trade as outlined in the ATT. At a national level, governments can establish suitable legislation, controls and regulations to effectively implement the Treaty and regulate the arms trade. Not every country needs as complicated an export control system as the United States, for example, but every country needs to tailor a system to fit its national needs and fulfill the Treaty’s obligations. To do so, countries must identify their capacity needs.

As part of an effort to help States identify and develop regulatory mechanisms, Stimson is leading a project to establish the baseline of State practice for fulfilling the ATT’s obligations. The Arms Trade Treaty Baseline Assessment Project developed a baseline assessment survey and ratification checklist to identify gaps in a country’s arms trade system. Once a government has filled out a survey and checklist, it can clearly identify what it already does, what it needs to do, and what types of assistance it requires to meet its ATT obligations. The completed surveys can be used to highlight best practices and system models for other countries preparing for entry into force. The survey data could also be used to monitor the impact of the ATT over time and to target implementation assistance projects to avoid duplicative efforts and conserve scarce resources. Moreover, the survey could be used as a reporting mechanism to fulfill annual reporting requirements in the absence of an official Treaty template. 

The United States is moving at slow pace in the “Race to 50.” Although the United States already fulfills all of the ATT’s obligations without having to make any legislative or regulatory changes, it will not be among the first 50 ratifiers. Secretary of State John Kerry signed the Treaty on September 25, 2013, and although the Obama administration has stated publicly its views on the ATT – saying the Treaty “is about keeping weapons out of the hands of terrorists and rogue actors…and keeping America strong” – it has not done a good job selling the Treaty to skeptical Senators or the American public. Thus, opponents of the ATT, including the National Rifle Association and its allies, have dominated the limited public discourse on the subject. The most recent House National Defense Authorization Act included an amendment introduced by Representative Mike Kelly (R-PA) that prevents funds from being used to implement the ATT.

Even without ratifying the Treaty, the United States can help establish global norms of transparency and restraint in arms transfers. The United States needs to regularly and publicly emphasize support for the ATT directly to Congress and the American public. One way is for the United States to use the new conventional arms transfer policy released by the Obama administration earlier this year. The policy uses language directly from the ATT and balances legitimate arms transfers that further US interests with restraint over arms sales that fuel conflict and human rights abuses.

Now, the United States needs to ensure that potential and future arms sales – particularly to countries of concern – fit within the new policy and the overall goals of the ATT. Proposed US sales to Egypt and Ukraine, for example, highlight the need to balance politics, economic interests and security with restraint and caution in future arms deals. In both these cases, the United States is faced with the dilemma of providing arms to support security interests that could potentially be diverted to unintended recipients for uses contrary to US objectives. The United States can lead on building global norms aligned with the ATT and demonstrating how those norms can be put into practice without sacrificing the legitimate trade in arms.


The last year demonstrated significant progress in establishing the legitimacy of the ATT, but much work is still necessary to ensure the ATT’s success over the long term and as States “Race to 50”.  The verbal commitment towards the ATT is admirable; now governments must demonstrate their commitment in practice.

Photo credit: Yortw via flickr

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