28 June 2012
Patricia Lewis

Dr Patricia Lewis

Research Director, International Security, Chatham House
Zoë Pelter
(Former Chatham House Expert)


On 2 July, UN member states will begin four weeks of intense negotiations towards the world’s first Arms Trade Treaty, which will seek to establish the highest possible common international standards for the transfer of conventional weapons. Achieving a comprehensive, robust and effective treaty will require a delicate balancing act. 

The scale of the arms trade is significant. The top five exporting countries alone delivered nearly 92 million major conventional weapons from 2006-10 – a figure that increased by 22% from 2001-05. However, there is currently no global regulation of the trade, just a patchwork of national laws and regional agreements that fail to impose any consistent standard. 

The lack of comprehensive global standards for the conventional arms trade has allowed arms to flow to a range of actors, including terrorists and human rights abusers, thereby prolonging conflict and undermining stabilisation and development efforts. The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) - if negotiated - will establish, for the first time, much needed internationally agreed norms of responsible state behaviour with regards to arms transfers. Clearly, an ATT cannot act as a cure-all solution for conflict affected countries, nor will it have bearing on domestic arms controls or attempts to hinder inter-state arms trade. However, if successfully negotiated and implemented, it could be an effective filter to curb the worst excesses in irresponsible and illicit arms trading.

Four short weeks and a very full agenda 

Preparatory meetings over the past two years have acted as forums for states to air often divergent views. These meetings have made clear that the treaty will need to address the full range of weapons from tanks to domestic security equipment.

Numerous states and regional groups, including the European Union, African Union and Caribbean Community, have insisted on the inclusion of small arms and light weapons (SALW), seeking to extend the treaty’s scope beyond the seven categories of the UN Register of Conventional Arms. This would acknowledge the incendiary role that these weapons types play in conflict-affected fragile states. States including Egypt and China have resisted the inclusion of SALW, suggesting that they remain solely under the purview of the non-binding UN Programme of Action on the illicit trade in SALW. But exclusion of SALW on these grounds would be a missed opportunity to stem the flow of weapons to illicit markets from the legitimate primary sources through irresponsible middle-men. 

Debate has been particularly heated on the potential inclusion of ammunition, and the US, which produces over seven billion rounds of ammunition a year, remains sceptical of the practicality of monitoring such a vast scale of trade. However, restricting the sale of ammunition to irresponsible users is a key objective for many countries as it would make a significant reduction in armed violence in conflict-ridden regions.

The primary aim of the ATT is to prevent the irresponsible transfer of weapons to actors who may use conventional arms in breach of international humanitarian and human rights law. However, whether the criteria listed in the treaty should be descriptive or prohibitive has yet to be decided. The US has thus far advocated that an ATT be a document that respects the sovereignty of states by listing principles of what states should take into consideration before authorising arms transfers but not how each state must evaluate such a transfer.

Provisions for states to augment or strengthen national controls on arms transfers will likely be included. Although there are tense discussions over funding for capacity-building and support, effective implementation will require mechanisms for: reporting on administrative and regulatory improvements; trading decisions; and necessary international cooperation and assistance for states to implement the changes. Moreover, provisions on how to interact with potential non-signatory states will be paramount to avoiding circumvention of the treaty.

A delicate balancing act

There is much to be done, and much of the effort is dedicated to ensuring that Russia, the UK, France, Germany and the US - who together account for three quarters of the value of the world’s arms exports - are on board with the resultant treaty. China, another key arms exporter, has thus far not signed up to any multilateral binding agreements on arms exports and has suggested removing government to government trades from the treaty’s scope. For many other countries a deletion of this order would so weaken the ATT as to make it almost worthless.

While a wide range of views on the treaty must be balanced to ensure agreement with the final outcome of July’s talks, most states agree that the treaty purpose must not be overly compromised. A treaty that fails to improve upon existing multilateral agreements runs the risk of effectively legitimising irresponsible transfers. However, a treaty that creates an onerous structural burden that hinders the legitimate commercial trade may well be snubbed by a wide range of countries and be unable to affect any significant impact. 

Attempts to find full consensus in New York will render inclusion of these important factors a diplomatic balancing act - one which must seek to gain agreement from the world’s major arms exporting states without diluting the treaty substance to the point of a merely symbolic ATT.

Project on Arms Control >>