Project: International Security Department

Associate Fellow, International Security

Beyond restricting arms sales, the UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) can generate positive indirect impacts such as poverty reduction, improved health care and educational opportunities.

UN photo by Martine PerretPhoto: UN photo by Martine Perret.

In recent decades traditional inter-state wars have increasingly given way to internal and asymmetric conflicts, which have been fuelled by illicit or poorly regulated arms sales. Such conflicts have targeted civilian populations who have become the main victims of armed violence. This is particularly true for people in communities ridden with poverty, instability, high levels of criminality and corruption. The new UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) – which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2013 and entered into force in December 2014 – offers hope of a further reduction in armed violence against civilians, with associated positive impacts on living standards, health and education.

Until the adoption of the ATT, the lack of international binding obligations with respect to the transfer of arms gave the perpetrators of human rights violations and actors involved in other illicit activities many freedoms to purchase and stock arsenals without comprehensive controls, accountability or significant regulatory consequences. Now, all states parties to the treaty are required to conduct comprehensive risk assessments before authorizing arms exports. This includes evaluating the risk that exported arms could be used in violations of international human rights law or international humanitarian law (IHL). Indeed, the ATT explicitly demands that states parties put upholding human rights law and IHL at the core of their arms export decisions. Signatories to the treaty are also required to prevent arms transfers from abetting terrorism, organized crime, gender-based violence (GBV) or violence against children.

The ATT has the potential to advance human security through improving accountability, responsibility and transparency in international arms transfer controls. In doing so, the treaty aims to create a safer and more secure environment for all those living under the threat of violence. 

The use of weapons – be they legally purchased or illicit – has different impacts on people depending on their age and gender. The majority of perpetrators and direct victims of armed violence are young men. Women, however, suffer disproportionately from direct and indirect consequences, in both conflict and non-conflict settings, including sexual violence, disability and economic degradation. Human security, an approach that puts people at the centre of security decision-making, aims to develop policies that create safer environments for all people, irrespective of their age or gender, income or societal role. The ATT was developed and negotiated with a human security focus, and the wider implications and benefits of the treaty go far beyond the mere establishment of national export and import control laws and systems. The ATT will directly reduce the number of victims in conflicts, and the serious threats posed to UN personnel such as peacekeepers by the uncontrolled proliferation of arms. As a consequence, in the longer term, the treaty will generate positive indirect impacts such as poverty reduction, improved health care and educational opportunities.

The real strength of the ATT will only be realized through the ways in which states parties implement it. To maximize both the direct and indirect impacts of the ATT, all its stakeholders need to remain open to learning from experience, developing sound practices, and to innovations in other policy areas. Maintaining constant and constructive interaction among a wide range of policy instruments, and the professionals implementing them, will be vital for the health of the treaty.

The ultimate test for the ATT will be the difference it can deliver to those whose lives would otherwise be destroyed by conflict and armed violence, as a result of irresponsible and poorly regulated trade in arms. To maximize the ATT’s effectiveness in improving human security, this paper proposes the following:

  • All countries – irrespective of their current affiliation with the treaty – should ensure that comprehensive and well-informed risk assessments on human rights, IHL and human security are included in national transfer control decision-making. The possibility that arms could be used for genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes should be a prime consideration in decisions to deny transfer requests. Governments should also refuse to authorize exports of weapons to places or end-users if such shipments are likely to be used in violations of human rights, including GBV or violence against children.

  • All ATT states parties should also promote the incorporation of human rights, IHL and human security requirements in existing and future regional, sub-regional and international arms transfer regulations and related instruments.

  • To ensure that the ATT can promote human security globally, all countries should strive for universal adherence to and application of the treaty. They should also continue to promote expansion of the treaty’s membership.

  • The ATT Secretariat and interested states parties should consider organizing training and capacity-building projects to develop a regional and global capacity for comprehensive risk assessments, especially as they relate to indicators that the transferred arms could be used in violation of IHL, or hamper human rights or human security in the recipient country.

  • A consortium of UN bodies – such as the Security Council, the Human Rights Council, UNDP and OHCHR – should work together to pursue a coordinated approach towards ensuring human security in arms transfers. This paper proposes that the consortium establish twice-yearly coordination meetings, networks of experts and an online information exchange platform.