Elli Kytömäki
Associate Fellow, International Security
A year after the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) opened for signature, it has been signed by almost 120 states and ratified by over 30. The first legally binding treaty to regulate the international trade in conventional arms is heading towards entry into force at a remarkable speed. But the ATT’s practical impact still remains to be seen, as countries work to make it a practical and credible tool to fight the irresponsible arms transfers that fuel conflicts and human rights violations.
Campaigners with Control Arms fill out placards for an internet campaign with the names of the countries that have signed the first international treaty regulating global arms trade at the UN on 3 June 2013 in New York City. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty ICampaigners with Control Arms fill out placards for an internet campaign with the names of the countries that have signed the first international treaty regulating global arms trade at the UN on 3 June 2013 in New York City. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

The ATT aims to set standards for the international trade in conventional weapons ranging from small arms to tanks, attack helicopters and warships. Once in force, it will require its parties to review their trade licensing procedures to ensure that weapons will not be used in human rights abuses, violations of the international humanitarian law, or for criminal or terrorist purposes.

The treaty will enter into force 90 days after the 50th country deposits its instrument of ratification to the UN. Currently, only 18 more ratifications are needed to have the ATT become legally binding for its members. Having begun in 2006, the timeline of negotiation and gathering support for adoption is historically quick by the standards of UN disarmament negotiations.

An important leap forward in the process towards entry into force was taken when the EU gave permission to its member states to join the ATT, resulting in a rush of ratifications: on 2 April a total of 18 countries, including five of world’s top 10 arms exporters, delivered proof of their ratification to the UN.

The EU will undoubtedly have an important role to play in the entry into force and early implementation of the ATT, and it is beginning a series of support activities to encourage early entry into force and effective implementation of the treaty. Having all the EU member states fully onboard will bring further credibility to the process and show other UN states that major players see it as crucial and important to have into force as soon as possible.

The dominant view since the adoption of the treaty has been that it will enter into force in 2014, with the first Conference of States Parties in 2015. Even sceptics are starting to believe that we could well see the ‘race to 50’ ending in July, making the ATT legally binding for its members by the end of October.

There are two ways of looking at ratifications: in the ‘race to 50’, greatly supported by Control Arms, a group of influential non-governmental organizations, all ratifications are of an equal value and each new member brings us closer to the ATT. But as the race draws toward a close, some accessions – many still missing – will be more important that others in ensuring the implementation and credibility of the treaty.

The world’s biggest exporters of conventional arms—the United States, Russia and China—will of course be important in addition to having the EU onboard. In addition, as one of the main goals of the ATT is to prevent the illicit trade and diversion of conventional arms, it is also important to help close the regulatory loopholes that currently exist. Potential ‘leak countries’ that find themselves in the crossroads of major arms transfer routes and have insufficient controls should be encouraged to ratify early. Finally, to ensure the treaty’s long-term impact, the international community should also make sure that countries that are currently setting up their own production capabilities and control systems will meet the ATT criteria from the outset.

More work is required to make the ATT an operational treaty. The next steps beyond getting the necessary number of ratifications involve setting up the provisional secretariat and the first meeting of states parties. As in all international treaties, continued awareness-raising and support will be needed to ensure effective implementation. It is premature to expect the ATT to immediately change the practices of trading in weapons. Loopholes will not automatically close and regrettably, there will be cases of further irresponsible transfers, probably even among the treaty members. The ATT will not be a panacea, but it is a step in the right direction.

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