8 September 2015
There is now an opportunity for the treaty to make an important impact in curbing illicit and poorly regulated arms trading, if it is not undermined by weak enforcement.
Elli Kytömäki

Elli Kytömäki

Associate Fellow, International Security


Police officers prepare to destroy confiscated illegal guns on 1 September 2015 in Kangding County, China. Photo via Getty Images.
Police officers prepare to destroy confiscated illegal guns on 1 September 2015 in Kangding County, China. Photo via Getty Images.


In late August in Cancun, Mexico, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) took a major step forward by establishing its permanent secretariat in Geneva. As the first international legally binding instrument aimed at establishing common standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms and reducing their illicit trade, the treaty has real potential in improving millions of lives worldwide. But will it be able to make a difference on the ground? The next 12 months will be crucial in determining the ATT’s effectiveness.

A success story of UN negotiations

The need to regulate the international trade in weapons ranging from small arms to battle tanks and warships was first recognized at the international level in the mid-1990s. In what in the arms control and disarmament circles is deemed top-speed progress, the idea of a kind of international code of conduct was developed into a UN initiative in 2006 and led to the adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in 2014. The ATT entered into force in less than a year following the first 50 ratifications. Expectations are high for the continued expansion and implementation of a treaty that, against the backdrop of a number of other stalled and failed multilateral arms control and disarmament processes, could provide a much needed flicker of hope.

One of the possible stumbling blocks – the contentious rule to be able to implement a two-thirds majority decision-making rule if consensus cannot be reached – was quickly agreed at the Cancun conference. This was heralded as a welcome change to the usual consensus rule of most arms control processes, which in recent years too often has proven to be effective only in paralyzing any progress. In addition, the Conference of States Parties (CSP) decided to open all future ATT meetings to civil society instead of only States Parties, thus aiding the goals of transparency and accountability embedded in the treaty.

However, states failed to agree on the substantive issue of national reporting templates to guide the two types of submissions expected from the States Parties: one on treaty implementation due at the end of 2015 and another on annual reporting on arms authorizations and actual transfers. Instead the CSP ‘took note’ of the prepared preliminary templates and established an informal working group to continue working on the formats. 

Will the treaty work?

Sceptics have criticized the ATT since the outset for being mostly a codification of the interests of Western arms exporting countries. It has also been accused of lacking teeth because a number of large arms producers and exporters from other regions have not ratified the treaty. While partially developed on the basis of countries’ already existing regional commitments, the treaty was designed to apply equally to all countries, be they exporters or importers of weapons or involved in the international trade through transit and transshipment.

Undoubtedly, one of the ATT’s most important challenges in the coming years will be universalization. Despite having already gathered a relatively large participation base during the first year of its operation, significant scope for expansion remains, particularly in Africa and among some of the large exporters and importers of conventional arms such as Russia and China. Failing to expand its membership, the treaty would risk falling behind in both serving its purpose and achieving its goals.

Less than 18 months since it was adopted at the UN, the ATT now has all the main administrative elements in place or in train to provide the infrastructure for effective implementation. With the final reporting templates still under discussion and the first submissions starting to come in at the end of 2015, effective reporting is the most significant question mark with regard to the future practical implementation of the treaty. Unfortunately, it also seems that in contrast to the existing UN reporting instruments, such as the UN Register of Conventional Arms, ATT national reports will not automatically be made public. Instead, states will have to give express permission for them to be made generally available, something that could seriously undermine transparency and accountability.

The ATT has the potential to prevent the worst excesses of conflict such those currently in the Middle East. The challenge of the coming year will be to show that the ATT is not just another set of on-paper commitments but can become a real tool in preventing conflict, armed violence and human rights abuses worldwide.

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