Elli Kytömäki
Associate Fellow, International Security

This week the United Nations adopted the first international treaty on the trade in conventional arms. The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), discussed at the UN since 2006, is a landmark legally binding instrument aimed at establishing common standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms; trade worth tens of billions each year. 

It is a success story for the UN, which all too often has found itself deadlocked over global disarmament, non-proliferation and humanitarian efforts. It also indicates that when it comes to tough politics, the way forward is through the democratic process of voting rather than an insistence on veto-producing consensus.

Landslide vote to adopt the Arms Trade Treaty

The UN General Assembly approved the ATT resolution with an overwhelming final majority of 155 for adoption, and 3 against. The countries that voted no – Iran, North Korea, and Syria – also blocked adoption of the ATT text at the final ATT Negotiating Conference on March 28. The original rules of the conference require consensus but, as with other negotiations, this approach served to enable the few hold-outs to block the wishes of the majority. In the end, the decision was taken to put it to a vote in the UN General Assembly. By the final count, 22 countries, including some major players such as Russia, China and India, abstained. The door remains open for them to join and ratify as events occur and policies adapt.  

The ATT will require governments to establish national laws and procedures to control transfers of conventional arms, parts and components and ammunition. Each transaction must be considered against common criteria. Covering a range of weapons from small arms to battle tanks and warships, the Treaty will explicitly prohibit states from transferring arms in violation of arms embargoes and, if they have knowledge at the time of transfer that the arms are likely to be used in committing genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes. States will also have to evaluate whether the exported weapons would be used to violate international human rights or humanitarian laws, be used to commit acts constituting offences relating to terrorism or organized crime, or undermine peace and security. Contrary to persistent claims by few vocal opponents, it will not undermine national regulations or constitutional rights regarding civilian possession of weapons in any country, nor harm states' legitimate right to self-defence.

Many world leaders quickly welcomed the Treaty. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon described it as 'a historic diplomatic achievement – the culmination of long-held dreams and many years of effort'. But some have expressed their disappointment, repeating claims that despite lengthy negotiations and drafting, the text remained 'unbalanced', favoring exporting states and failed to ban of the sale of weapons to non-state actors and terrorists. 

Active campaigning and persistent opposition

Developed at record-speed compared to other UN negotiations, the dynamism of the ATT process remained largely unchanged throughout the years. Backed by the core group of co-authors (Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan, Kenya and the United Kingdom), it quickly gained the support of most European, African and Latin American countries, leaving the Middle East and parts of Asia-Pacific more skeptical. 

Statements in the meetings leading up to the March conference tended to repeat the same national positions and concerns, while through consultations, a compromise text took shape. The most progressive ATT-promoters had to concede to some ground, but the text remained relatively strong, including for instance transfer criteria on ammunition, parts and components, as well as reference to the risk of transferred items being used to commit gender-based violence.

A major development in the ATT process was the shift in US policy. The US voted against the ATT in 2006 and 2008, then following President Obama’s first election the US supported the process, and finally moved to co-sponsor the ATT resolution for the vote on 2 April. However, watch this space; it may be some time before the US can join it: international treaties require a two-thirds majority in the Senate, which seems unlikely given intense opposition to the Treaty by the National Rifle Association. 

The last two rounds of negotiations were overshadowed by the war in Syria, which became the single, most often cited example of how the Treaty could affect arms transfer policies and help stem violence and grave human rights violations in conflict. 

Undoubtedly, the ATT, as a unique historic agreement, raises hopes and expectations, as well as reservations. The Control Arms campaign tweeted about an unprecedented victory for populations affected by conflicts and armed violence, whereas skeptics have raised concerns about the Treaty’s importance, questioning the impact of an international treaty without formal enforcement can have on states' behavior. 

Introducing new norms to arms trade

The Treaty will be open for signature on 3 June and will enter into force 90 days after the 50th ratification. Given the active support of a large group of countries, a considerable number of immediate signatures are expected. Final ratification will depend on signatories' domestic constitutional processes, so gathering the required number of ratifications could take anything between 18 months to three years. 

The number of states party will be central to the effectiveness of the Treaty. In a global trade, however, its effect will be felt irrespective of whether some states are party to it or not. It will be crucial to ensure, especially in the Treaty's early years, that enough effort is put into awareness-raising and providing support to states in developing their export control systems before ratification. Promoting early entering into force, global accession, and practical implementation of the ATT will ultimately define its success. Early effect will require early entry into force.

The ATT will not solve all problems related to the international arms trade and it will not totally eradicate diversion or the illicit trade. Rather than an end in itself, the adoption of the ATT should be seen as the end of the beginning: the rise of an important new international norm on arms transfers, leading to more responsible and transparent trade and making a real difference for the people of the world.