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Today, global arms exports amount to at least $43 billion. And the legal part of the business is mirrored by a vast illegal trade in arms that fuels violence, atrocities, and civil wars across the globe. While elevating existing standards for regulating licit international trade in conventional arms, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) recently adopted by the UN General Assembly seeks to reduce this illicit trade in particular.

Yet, although the treaty is a significant step forward, the practical and organizational reality of putting it into effect will be a challenge for many developing states with limited regulatory resources, funds, and capacity. The authors of the ATT recognized this challenge and included a concrete measure in the treaty to address it: a voluntary trust fund, resourced by states parties, “to assist requesting States Parties requiring international assistance to implement this Treaty.”

The ATT trust fund will only come into effect after the ATT has entered into force, which may not happen until 2015 or 2016. Fortunately, on June 7th, the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs launched an interim fund to provide support for early ratification, the United Nations Trust Facility Supporting Cooperation on Arms Regulation. The initiative is so far backed by Australia, Germany, Denmark, Spain, and the Netherlands. By providing legal, legislative, and technical assistance, its priority for 2014 is to support early ratification of the treaty by as many countries as possible.

Key Conclusions

  • If the interim trust fund for supporting early ratification of the ATT is to achieve its goal, it needs to consider taking the priorities of its intended beneficiaries—rather than its funders—as its starting point.
  • The interim facility should focus on helping a few fragile countries, which have particularly suffered from the international arms trade, to ratify the treaty quickly.
  • The Secretariat and funders of the interim facility should work together to ensure it is light on bureaucracy and focused on effective delivery.
  • In the long term, a transaction tax on arms exports could provide the ATT trust fund with a reliable revenue stream while meeting corporate social responsibility commitments of many in the arms industry who are calling for more responsible arms transfers.


The global arms trade is a lucrative business that generates significant profits. It also helps oil the wheels of geopolitical alliances. Unfortunately, the adage “If you want peace, prepare for war,” has lost none of its appeal despite the known zero-sum arms races it may trigger. The illegal arms trade in particular undercuts the post-World War II gains in advancing global order by decreasing the acceptability of violence and increasing its regulation. Illegal arms end up in the hands of actors that neither obey domestic nor international laws of war, so their use of force has fewer limits, is less predictable, and much less accountable.

This is why it is so significant that the UN General Assembly adopted the Arms Trade Treaty on April 3, 2013, by a vote of 156 to 3, with 22 abstentions. The ATT seeks to elevate existing standards for regulating the international trade in conventional arms and in particular to reduce illicit trade. Most significantly, it creates an obligation for its signatories to conduct a risk assessment of every proposed arms export to ensure it does not undermine international peace and security, nor contribute to violations of human rights and humanitarian law or to acts of transnational organized crime or terrorism. It also enables signatories to hold each other to account for the quality of decisions taken.

Ensuring effective assistance for ratification efforts is therefore vital. But if the United Nations Trust Facility Supporting Cooperation on Arms Regulation (UNSCAR) is to achieve its priority of early ratification by as many countries as possible, it will need to surmount three challenges.

First, UNSCAR should consider taking the priorities of its intended beneficiaries more explicitly as its starting point. Quite a few assistance programs in the past have mainly served donor priorities. While a balance needs to be found, effective ATT implementation requires addressing regulatory and capacity gaps in a more structural and sustainable manner. UNSCAR can potentially accomplish this, but consensus among its funders will be required to create the necessary degrees of freedom. Joint assessments between potential beneficiaries and funders of national transfer-control systems can be a good way of balancing the different interests at stake. They could also form the basis for grant making by UNSCAR and ensure grants are used productively.

Second, UNSCAR should consider focusing on helping a few fragile countries, which have particularly suffered from the international arms trade, to ratify the treaty quickly. This will require focus, funds, and capacity. While such early ratifications will require continued support through longer-term assistance programs, they have both symbolic value and will start to improve critical enforcement capabilities (e.g., border, customs, and law enforcement agencies tasked with preventing arms trafficking) in countries that are potentially also weak links in an effective global regulatory framework.

To ensure visibility and avoid overlap, such efforts should be connected with broader initiatives to strengthen transfer controls (e.g., measures against the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 1540) as well as broader peacebuilding and statebuilding initiatives. The seven pilot countries of the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding (Sierra Leone, Liberia, Chad, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, and Timor-Leste) are ideal cases in this regard. All of these states voted in favor of the ATT in the UN, with the exception of Sierra Leone, which was absent. Their applications to UNSCAR should be looked upon favorably as this represents an opportunity to improve their ability to control arms flows as part of their New Deal commitment to strengthen people’s security.

Third, the Secretariat and funders of UNSCAR must ensure it is light on bureaucracy and focused on effective delivery. The UN Office of Disarmament Affairs (ODA) has, despite best efforts, not been the most responsive or efficient facilitator of assistance for states seeking to implement the UN Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects. Therefore, the UN ODA’s role in the delivery of ATT assistance via UNSCAR should be treated as a test for its candidacy for the role of Secretariat of the ATT.

To top it off, a longer-term conversation needs to be started now on how the ATT trust fund itself can avoid being overly dependent on the fluctuation of resources that come with voluntary contributions, and how it can be linked with the emerging post-2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDG) framework. Perhaps it is worth exploring the possibility of resourcing the ATT trust fund through a Tobin-type transaction tax that is imposed on arms exports, under which a small percentage of their value accrues to the trust fund in quasi-automatic fashion. This would fit the corporate social responsibility commitments of many in the arms industry that call for responsible arms transfers and have supported the ATT, and provide the fund with a reliable revenue stream to finance long-term capacity improvement efforts.

A well-functioning ATT trust fund can make an invaluable contribution to a strong global regulatory framework that prevents illicit arms flows from fueling violence and conflict and undermining good governance. It now needs to be operationalized and delivered effectively.

Paul Holtom is the director of SIPRI’s Arms Transfers Programme. Erwin van Veen is a peacebuilding and conflict specialist with the OECD-DAC’s International Network on Conflict and Fragility. The article does not necessarily reflect the view of either organization or their members.

Photo credit: UN Photo/P Sudhakaran