Project: International Security Department

Associate Fellow, International Security

This paper analyses the benefits that countries can draw from joining the UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in terms of reducing the negative consequences of armed violence and promoting sustainable development.

Photo: Albert González Farran, UNAMIDPhoto: Albert González Farran, UNAMID

On 2 April 2013, UN member states adopted the first international legally binding treaty to improve regulations over the trade in conventional arms. The UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), in force since December 2014, is a landmark arms control achievement and one with potentially remarkable implications across policy areas. One of the most promising is its possible wider impact on development and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Armed violence or insecurity as well as the impact of weapons on the sustainable improvement of communities have been acknowledged within the development policy as affecting the achievement of each and every developmental goal: the availability, proliferation and excessive accumulation of arms is a contributor to armed violence and a serious impediment to countries’ achievement of the MDGs, including those related to human development, human rights and the protection of civilians. The poorly controlled and illegal arms trade in both conflict and non-conflict settings often leads to increased levels of casualties, forcing people to leave their homes and live under a constant threat of violence. It also has more indirect impacts through the diversion of funds from healthcare to defence, leading to increased unemployment and decreased educational opportunities as a consequence of conflicts and armed violence.

This paper analyses the benefits that countries can draw from joining the ATT in terms of reducing the negative consequences of armed violence and promoting sustainable development. It highlights the treaty’s potential and limitations across policy areas and in cases like Syria, where hypothetically it could have made some difference by affecting countries’ arms transfer decisions, but where it still would not have been able to prevent all the unforeseen implications of the conflict and resulting insecurity.

Developmental concerns are – as suggested by a large and growing body of research – an inherent part of arms transfer decisions that take into account, inter alia, arms embargoes, genocide, crimes against humanity or grave breaches of international humanitarian law (IHL), or serious acts of gender-based violence.

As the first treaty of its kind, the ATT can potentially help states to start making a significant difference in their arms exports and imports to ensure that they are compatible with development goals. For this to be achieved, the ATT needs to gain as close to universal adoption as possible and demonstrate that it can contribute to everyone’s wellbeing, from supporting responsible defence capabilities to protecting vulnerable sections of society against atrocities committed with illegally or irresponsibly traded weapons.

While the ATT should become a tool to prevent irresponsible arms transfers that could foster corruption, insecurity and human rights violations, improved controls should not hinder initiatives enabling states to legitimately address the drivers of insecurity that undermine their chances for development.

The ATT has much to offer to the development agenda, and vice versa. It is in the interest of all states to join the treaty to ensure a safer, more secure and prosperous future for all.

In practice, states considering joining the ATT should:

  • Consider the wider benefits of committing to the established and ever-developing norm promoting transparent and responsible arms transfers over short-term political priorities and economic gains. The ATT, if effectively implemented, will result in a win-win situation for everyone involved, bringing a more stable future for all countries in the world.
  • Take into account the change that has emerged in the past decade towards a more human security-centred approach to the sale of arms: the future will be increasingly determined by international norms, alliances and aspirations. To miss out on the opportunity now might have serious consequences.
  • Consider the whole-of-government approach when considering the beneficial impacts of joining the ATT. In today’s world, the arms trade is not solely a defence issue, nor is it a disarmament imperative. Being able to effectively and comprehensively implement the treaty might open doors for defence cooperation, dual-use technology development, training and development assistance-related funding.
  • Weigh the benefits of overseas development assistance against the short-term economic gains of the arms trade. The ATT has a trust fund to support the development of national regulatory agencies and improved arms transfer controls.
  • Link the benefits of promoting the norm of responsible international arms trading with the achievement of the MDGs and SDGs, mostly in terms of the treaty’s potential contribution to reducing armed violence, but also more generally. This applies to the UN and other international and regional institutions as well as states that consider promoting the future of the MDG agenda as a priority.