30 September 2013
Elli Kytömäki

Elli Kytömäki

Associate Fellow, International Security


On 25 September, the United States signed the UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), joining a group of over 110 countries already signed to the treaty which aims to regulate the global trade in arms. The treaty will enter into force once fifty countries have ratified it. This will most likely take at least two years and require significant assistance and capacity building efforts in many regions. 

Commentators at the latest ATT signing event, which took place on the sidelines of the high-level debate of the UN General Assembly, were quick to highlight the significance of the US decision to adhere to the ATT: the US’s one signature brought about 80% of the world's exports under the treaty. The act is even more noteworthy considering the overall shift in the American position: the US changed its view from voting against the ATT resolution in 2006 to co-sponsoring it in 2012.The US State Department explained the country’s motives by noting that signing the treaty could help improve both US national security and global security by reducing the risk of internationally transferred conventional arms being used to carry out atrocities, such as crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes.

The ATT covers a range of conventional weapons from small arms to battle tanks and aims to create common minimum rules for the international trade in arms. Entering into force 90 days after the 50th ratification, it will explicitly prohibit states from transferring arms in violation of arms embargoes and selling weapons if they have knowledge at the time of transfer that the arms are likely to be used inter alia in violations of international humanitarian law or human rights law. States will also have to evaluate whether the exported weapons would be used to commit acts constituting offences relating to terrorism or organized crime, or undermine peace and security. Practically, it will require its state parties to establish basic national export, import and transit control systems, maintain records, and produce annual reports on granted licenses or actual transfers.

Encouraging sign for other countries

In a promising move, 18 countries including the US, signed the treaty last week. Speaking at the UN after the signature ceremony, US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed hope that the US signature would lead other major exporters to sign the ATT as soon as possible.

Outside Europe, the treaty's main supporters have been in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Countries from these regions participated actively in the ATT negotiations and dominated the initial signature event in June 2013. Recent developments might change attitudes in other regions as well, and possibly affect the policies in the two P5 states that are yet to join the treaty – China and Russia. 

Informal sources indicate that China, which abstained from the ATT vote at the UN General Assembly in March, is more likely to consider joining the list of signatories now that the US has signed. Russia, another abstainer, remains skeptical about the treaty and is unlikely to join in the near future. For both China and Russia to sign, the ATT would have to be less concerned about common transfer criteria, and make its main goal to prevent the leakage of weapons to unwanted end-users, such as terrorists. Regionally, the treaty’s most doubtful views are in some countries of the South and South-East Asia and the Middle East. Since the Arab Spring, there appears to be increased interest in the region – for instance towards enhanced implementation of the UN Programme of Action on Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons. Given the links between the two instruments, joining the ATT might well be the chosen policy for some countries in the region.

US gun lobby disappointed, but not defeated

The National Rifle Association (NRA) has been a vocal opponent of the treaty since its outset, claiming that it would affect US citizens' right to bear arms, create an invasive registration scheme of all transferred weapons and control their end use. While the treaty does not affect domestic legislation or civilian possession of weapons, the NRA has assured its supporters that it will continue to fight the 'assault on fundamental freedom' by ensuring that the Senate does not ratify the treaty. Active lobbying for this is already underway.

Towards entry into force

After the initial joy of the US signature news settled down, the discourse immediately shifted to when, if ever, the US might be in a position to ratify the treaty. It will have to be ratified by the Senate, and given the Republican opposition to the treaty and the NRA’s strong foothold in domestic politics, it might be impossible for the US to join the ATT any time soon. This will relegate the treaty to a group of other agreements – including the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and the Convention on the Law of the Sea – that the US has signed but not ratified.

Despite the EU’s support of the ATT, there are complications here too concerning ratification. Recent developments on policy responsibilities in the EU mean that member states can only decide on their accession to the ATT after receiving authorization from the EU Council. A proposal for a Council Decision has been made, but it is not clear when it might be passed. In the meantime, one EU state has already ratification of the Treaty, joining the nearly ten other countries that have already done so.

Many countries will also have to make considerable changes to their arms transfer control laws and procedures before joining the treaty. Given limited resources and expertise in the area, significant efforts will be needed to assist countries in the lead-up to ATT coming into force. So, despite the recent good news, many hurdles still remain.