The UN Conference on an Arms Trade Treaty: No Treaty…Yet?

The UN Conference on an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) wrapped up on 27 July 2012 after four weeks of negotiations. The conference had been tasked with reaching consensus on an international treaty to establish “common international standards for the transfer of conventional arms.” On the penultimate day, the president of the conference presented a draft treaty text. It was felt that states would accept this document despite its limitations. However, on the last day of the conference, on instructions from the White House, the US delegation called for another round of negotiations. This call was subsequently supported by a number of noted skeptical states of the ATT initiative, including Cuba, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela. This was a blow to the many UN member states that were expecting to conclude negotiations on an ATT in July 2012 and begin work to bring the treaty into force.

Measured Success for Proponents of an ATT

Long-standing proponents of an ATT have emphasized that it should have a positive impact on human security. It should oblige states to consider international human rights and humanitarian law, as well as human security impacts before authorizing arms exports. However, China, India, Russia and a number of other states do not accept the proposition that human security considerations have a place in arms export decision-making. Therefore, the inclusion of human security considerations in the draft treaty text presented on the penultimate day of the ATT negotiating conference can be regarded as particularly significant. Nevertheless, the draft treaty text was problematic in several important regards:

  • Arms transfer prohibitions and risk assessments: although human security considerations were included in the draft treaty text, so too were implicit exemptions and in general the privileging of state security interests. For example, China pushed for the treaty to refer to the international arms trade, excluding gifts and donations from risk assessments, and India pushed for a clause that the ATT could not be “cited as grounds for voiding contractual obligations under defense cooperation agreements.” The influence of the US was also felt in ensuring that state security interests trumped human security considerations.
  • Defining conventional arms: although a lot of states called for the ATT to have a broad definition for conventional arms to be covered by the ATT, the draft treaty text defined conventional arms in line with the so-called “7 + 1 formula” “at a minimum” – limited to the seven categories of the UN Register of Conventional Arms and an additional category for SALW. It is notable that several skeptical states accepted the inclusion of SALW in the scope of an ATT after previously opposing this proposal. The UN Register’s coverage is limited to major conventional weapons used for large-scale inter-state conflict rather than reflecting the conventional arms and equipment controlled by many states today, and most importantly used by state security forces, criminals, terrorists and rebel groups in 21st century conflicts or serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. The most contested issue related to the inclusion of ammunition and munitions (see Role of the US), but the draft text also does not expressly prohibit circumvention of treaty obligations via licensed production arrangements and technology transfers. However, it is hoped that the requirement for states to establish national export control lists can be used to ensure that the scope of items actually controlled by states is much broader than the “7 + 1 formula.”
  • Transparency of international arms transfers: the draft treaty text makes no explicit reference to reports on a state party’s authorizations or actual exports being made public, although there is a reference to the UN Register of Conventional Arms. Of particular concern is the fact that it is clearly stated that “reports may exclude commercially sensitive or national security information,” which provides a significant loophole for those that hoped that the ATT would increase “transparency and accountability.”

It is possible that some of these shortcomings could be addressed by the development of understandings between states parties over time. This would, of course, require a treaty to be adopted and enter into force.

The Role of the US

There was particular friction between the US and a large number of states on two issues: (a) the inclusion of ammunition and munitions in the scope of the treaty and (b) a prohibition on transfers to unauthorized non-state actors. The US had stated that an obligation to mark ammunition or report ammunition transfers would be a red line. Technical concerns relating to the monitoring of the large volume of ammunition transfers could help to explain this position; but so too could political concerns relating to the ability of the National Rifle Association to misrepresent the treaty if it explicitly mentioned controls on ammunition imports. The US opposition to a prohibition on transfers to non-state actors is also related to concerns that this could be presented as impacting on domestic gun controls; but it is also because the US is opposed to “blanket bans” and wants to retain the ability to supply arms and equipment to non-state actors to defend themselves against armed violence committed by repressive state forces.

These two issues were regarded as essential elements of the ATT for many states from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. Most skeptical states also regarded the issue of a prohibition on arms transfers to unauthorized non-state actors an important element for a treaty that would have an impact on the illicit arms trade. While the draft treaty made a reference to the need for states to regulate ammunition exports, there was no reference to a ban on arms transfers to unauthorized non-state actors.

The ATT negotiations showed that long-standing proponents of an ATT were willing to make concessions and compromises in order to accommodate US concerns. In this regard the US was particularly privileged. However, the US delegation’s call for more negotiations probably owed more to political considerations with regards to the forthcoming US presidential election than the actual content of the draft ATT – even if it could have benefited from being circulated to UN member states a little earlier for more work.

Next Steps

At the time of writing it is unclear whether the next stage in the ATT process will be (a) a vote on the adoption of the draft treaty text in the General Assembly in December 2012, (b) an additional round of UN negotiations sometime during the period 2013-2015 or (c) taking the process out of the UN and pursuing the ATT among a group of like-minded states.

Based upon previous voting records on the ATT and the mood at the negotiating conference, somewhere between half and three-quarters of UN member states could vote in favor of adopting an amended version of the conference president’s draft treaty text as the ATT in the UN General Assembly at the end of 2012. One therefore expects this to be the preferred first option of the proponents of an ATT. However, the world’s two largest arms exporters – the US and Russia – are on the record as calling for another round of negotiations. There is a genuine concern that a further round of negotiations will not achieve more progress than during the July 2012 negotiations and that there is the danger of inviting unwelcome comparisons with the stalemate in the Conference on Disarmament. Further, deciding to take the process outside the UN would seem far too premature.

Proponents of an ATT are not aiming for Global Zero on international arms transfers and recognize it will not stop all violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, conflict and armed violence or corruption in arms deals. It will be a treaty that asserts the primacy of state controls over international arms transfers and which requires states to consider human security impacts before authorizing an arms transfer; requires states to put in place transfer control systems and resources to enforce decisions and prevent arms trafficking, as well as providing mechanisms for states to receive assistance; and increases transparency and accountability in international arms transfers. This represents an ambitious agenda in the sphere of international arms transfers, and one that not all UN member states are yet willing to accept.

Dr. Paul Holtom is the Director of the Arms Transfers Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

About the Photo: UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addresses the opening session of the UN Conference on an Arms Trade Treaty. UN Photo taken by Eskinder Debebe.