Making History: How the Arms Trade Treaty Was Won

Rumors of an arms deal echoed around the smoke-stained walls of the United Nations’ faded Vienna Café. It was early 2001, and a handful of campaigners were adamant that a new international arms control treaty was the surest route to prevent and reduce irresponsible transfers to conflict zones around the world. They were concerned that recently started negotiations to curb the illegal trade in small arms and light weapons were too narrow.

And they had some grounds for optimism. After 12 years of intense lobbying, the UN General Assembly has now adopted an Arms Trade Treaty, or ATT as it came to be known, by a vote of 154 for to 3 against. It is the first ever international treaty regulating the estimated $70 billion global trade in weapons.

The ATT is premised on an elegantly simple, but far-reaching, insight. For years, diplomats and arms control specialists argued that the world was awash in weapons due to thriving black markets and unscrupulous arms dealers. Yet research suggests that the “diversion” of official or authorized conventional weapons is much larger and more destructive than the outright “trafficking” in illicit arms. In other words, the legal trade, coupled with weak controls over state arsenals, arms sales, and weapons possession, is a bigger problem than black marketeering. It was with this focus on the authorized trade that the ATT departed from the UN Program of Action to Prevent, Combat, and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects, or PoA, launched in 2001.

By international arms control standards, the ATT’s progress from hopeful ideal to accepted norm was lightning quick. In 2003, the former president of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias, together with a few Nobel laureates, began pushing the concept in and outside of the United Nations. By 2006, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 61/89 entitled “Towards an Arms Trade Treaty” requesting that the secretary-general solicit the views of member states on the feasibility, scope, and parameters for a comprehensive and legally binding instrument with common standards on the import, export, and transfer of all conventional arms. After more than 90 states submitted their views, 153 states voted in favor of the resolution; 23 countries abstained; and just one, the United States, voted against.

Although a group of like-minded countries was enthusiastic about the prospects for an ATT, there were also many detractors. The most formidable among them resided in the United States. With President George W. Bush in the White House, then United Nations Ambassador John Bolton and the Institute for Legislative Action of the National Rifle Association (NRA) actively opposed the process, deploying the familiar mantra that an international treaty would infringe the second amendment rights of Americans. With an active coalition of pro-gun activists lining up to block the process, the future of the ATT looked bleak. Indeed, with the world’s largest arms exporter and importer not prepared to support the process, the legitimacy of the enterprise was thrown into doubt.

It is worth pointing out that the United States was not alone in its objection to the ATT. At least another thirty member states–including Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Venezuela and others–objected to provisions of the ATT from the very start. Most of them were fearful of the ways in which such an agreement might impinge on their national sovereignty. Others were wary of the ways in which such a treaty might favor Western powers. Undeterred, the United Nations pushed on with the process. A group of governmental experts was formed in 2007 and a final report was submitted to the General Assembly in late 2008. Meanwhile, the debate started to catch-on around the world, with hundreds of activist NGOs joining the debate.

If there was a turning point for the ATT, it came with the United States change of tack in 2009. Following the installation of the new Obama administration in Washington D.C., the state department issued a press release stating that it was reversing the position of the previous government. Emboldened by this game changer, the General Assembly introduced resolution 64/68 to convene a Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty in 2012 with three preparatory committee sessions held in the interim. The first attempt to broker the ATT in July 2012 faltered after the United States, China, and Russia requested more time to consider the text. Remarkably, a stronger draft text emerged as a result just nine months later.

And after still more lobbying by international coalitions such as the Control Arms Campaign and international human rights NGOs, a follow-up conference was held in New York in March 2013. But this time it was not the United States, but rather Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Syria that refused to support the process. These four countries highlighted missing references in the final text, including the right to self-determination. In his closing remarks, the president of the conference, Ambassador Peter Woolcott of Australia, remarked that the result was “disappointing” and “cast a cloud on the United Nations’ capacity to achieve consensus results on such matters,” though also hinted that “the treaty is coming.” Likewise, the ambassador to the UK stated flatly that this “was not a failure, just success deterred.”

Just a few days after the United Nations conference, on April 2, 2013, the General Assembly approved the ATT by an overwhelming majority. For the first time in history, the international community committed to a legally binding mechanism to restrict transfers of conventional weapons on the grounds that they might be used to violate international humanitarian law and human rights, facilitate terrorism and organized crime, violate United Nations Charter obligations including arms embargoes, be diverted from the intended recipient, and affect regional security and/or impair poverty reduction.

And while there is much to commend in the newly minted ATT, there are also significant gaps and limitations. While the treaty covers battle tanks, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles, large-caliber artillery systems, and small arms and light weapons, “civilian-style” firearms are exempt from the treaty, a concession to the United States, the only country in the world that regards gun possession as a right and not a privilege. The ATT is also criticized for lacking a clause banning the supply of arms to non-state actors as well as ambiguities about its scope and enforcement. Indeed, many are concerned with situations such as Syria where the West is actively considering the arming of rebel forces there.

Ultimately, like most international agreements, the ATT will only be as strong as the states that back it. And it is worth underlining that major players such as China and Russia abstained in the final vote, suggesting that agreement is not as universal as presumed. And notwithstanding increased efforts of the Obama administration to advance arms control at home, there are real concerns that the Senate may not gather the two thirds majority required to approve the ATT. That said, once the treaty comes into effect (90 days after it is ratified by the 50th signatory) it gives added impetus to entities such as the Security Council, the European Union, and the International Criminal Court to punish violators, including arms dealers. And this, surely, is cause for celebration.

Robert Muggah is the Research Director of the Igarapé Institute, a Principal of the SecDev Group, and a professor at the Instituto de Relações Internacionais, Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro.

About the photo: Ambassador Peter Woolcott (center), president of the final UN Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty, speaks with a delegate at the opening of the conference, March 2013. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe