The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT)

The international trade in weapons is only partially regulated and this regulation is based on individual contracts. One such contract is the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention (a.k.a. the Ottawa Convention) (1997), which prohibits the trade of landmines, among other things. Another contract is the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, CCW of 1980 which forbids weapons whose effects are indiscriminate or which are considered excessively injurious (for instance incendiary weapons or blinding laser weapons).

A legally binding document that deals comprehensively with the global trade in conventional weapons (such as battle tanks or fighter aircraft, or small arms and light weapons) was discussed in July 2012 at a global UN conference which unfortunately did not produce any results. Nearly one year later, on 2 April 2013, the UN General Assembly decided on adopting the Arms Trade Treaty (A/RES/67/234 B).The resolution was adopted by a 154-to-3 vote with 23 abstentions.

The idea of an international treaty on the transfer of arms was initiated by a group of Nobel Peace Prize winners led by Oscar Arias Sanchez who, in the mid-1990s started lobbying for a more responsible trade in weapons. This initiated a long negotiating process that from its beginning was supported by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), but that was also brought forward on the political level.

In 2006, the United Nations took up the Arias Sanchez initiative. The corresponding resolution 61/89 obtained a total of 153 votes in favor, 24 abstentions and one vote against it. This vote was cast by the United States, who is generally against global attempts to limit the trade of weapons. One important reason for this is their Constitution’s Second Amendment according to which, as is generally interpreted, each US American has the right to carry weapons. Under President Obama, the government changed its stance in 2008 and agreed to negotiations on the ATT so long as these negotiations would be based on consensus decision-making, i.e. each country had the right to veto decisions.

The type of weapons that are supposed to be regulated by the Treaty has resulted in a heated debate. Some states wanted to limit the scope of the ATT to the seven categories of conventional arms that are also included in the UN Register of Conventional Arms: battle tanks, armored military vehicles, large caliber artillery systems, military aircraft, military helicopters, naval weapons, and missiles and missile systems. Other countries, such as Germany, Italy, or Poland, criticised this approach as too narrow. The so-called package of 7+1, which adds small arms and light weapons as an additional category to the other seven was welcomed by nearly all states. Some countries, such as Austria, Germany and the Netherlands favored the inclusion of ammunition into the ATT but did not succeed. During the negotiations, it was also discussed whether so-called dual-use goods (goods, such as machines, parts but also software and technology that can be used in principle both for military and civilian purposes) should be included in the Treaty, which finally were not included.

Another contested issue was the kind of transactions that were to be covered by the ATT. Most states agreed that the transfer, i.e. the export and import, of conventional weapons has to be regulated. Some disarmament experts advised, however, to also regulate items on loan, and gifts, re-export, trade and the transfer of technology. The storage, production, local manufacturing and licensed production in third countries were also mentioned as possible topics for the ATT. Other voices, however, warned against inflating the content of the ATT too much and to be tempted to want to solve all problems in one go. The majority, however, agreed that the national regulations regarding weapons law were not to become part of the ATT. This was, above all, extremely important for obtaining the vote of the United States.

Another question that arose from this was which criteria should serve as the basis for the prohibition of certain weapons transfers. Most states agreed that these would have to be based on existing international law, such as the United Nations Charter. But it was also important to a number of states that the production, export, and import of weapons for legitimate reasons, such as self-defense, is not limited by an ATT. Arms exports are explicitly forbidden when the government of the potential exporting country has knowledge of the fact that the country of destination uses the military equipment for genocide, crimes against humanity and serious violations of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, for attacks of civilian objects or protected civilians or other crimes that are defined in international agreements signed by the recipient state.

It was also discussed in what form international cooperation and support should be integrated into the ATT, since its, its implementation at the national level confronts the state with one of its greatest challenges. This is why it is so important that states with more experience and capacities in this field support those with fewer capabilities. Two articles of the ATT are devoted to this topic. In addition to this, a voluntary trust fund has been established through which states can apply for international aid.

Civil society has not always been included in the negotiations but the adoption of the Treaty can also be attributed to the strong commitment of NGOs.

As at least 50 states will have to ratify the Treaty for it to enter into force, it is estimated that this will not happen before mid-2015. It is improbable that the entire weapons trade will change from one day to the next, but an important step has been made with the ATT. As EU regulations are much stricter than what is laid down in the ATT, EU Member States will not have to change their procedures in the future.

Sources and further information:

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