The Arms Trade Treaty: A Historic Achievement

by | Apr 15, 2013

Last month Dr Gilles Giacca wrote on the progress of the Arms Trade Negotiations recently held in New York.  Today, in the first of a special two-part series, he provides an overview of the historic results of these negotiations.

On Tuesday 2 April 2013, after many years of discussions and negotiations, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the UN Arms Trade Treaty by an overwhelming margin — the first ever global agreement governing the conventional arms trade. A total of 154 States voted in favour of the resolution, three voted against, and 23 abstained. The treaty will now be opened for signature on 3 June 2013.

This is a very good treaty, a very good treaty indeed. Not perfect assuredly— which treaty ever is?—but a robust text that will genuinely make a difference.

That it is a significant instrument is evidenced by the strong opposition by certain States to its adoption by consensus. In the final hours of the negotiations, the adoption of the text by consensus was blocked under rules of consensus decision-making because of a cynical move by Iran, Syria and DPR Korea, who voted against the General Assembly resolution that adopted the treaty.

The global trade in conventional arms is worth tens of billions of dollars each year, while many other weapons are transferred by means of gifts, leases, or loans. Putting the value of the arms trade and broader military expenditure into context, the UN Secretary-General observed during the July 2012 Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) Conference that 60 years of UN peacekeeping operations have cost less than six weeks of current military spending.

The transfer of conventional weapons has a major impact on recipient nations. Each year millions of people around the world suffer directly or indirectly as a result of poor regulation of the arms trade and illicit trafficking of arms, while hundreds of thousands of people are killed or injured by conventional arms. An eclectic array of national, regional international instruments governs the transfer of certain weapons. Nevertheless, common international standards regulating the import, export and transfer conventional arms were lacking.

The scope of the treaty is broad, covering most conventional arms, ammunition and munitions, and parts and components of arms. The treaty covers tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large-calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and missile launchers, and SALW (small arms and light weapons), as well as the ammunition and munitions that are fired, launched, or dropped by them. Parts and components of arms are covered, but not those of ammunition/munitions. Despite press reports to the contrary, the treaty applies to the transfer of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) at least when they are armed. Armed drones fall under the definition of combat aircraft.

Several provisions relate to human rights and humanitarian law, notably the criteria governing denials of proposed arms transfer. State Parties will be expected to review arms export legislation and not authorize any transfer of conventional arms under Article 6.3 if it has knowledge at the time of authorization that the arms or items would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians protected as such (i.e. where they are not participating actively/directly in hostilities), or other war crimes as defined by international agreements to which it is a Party.

In addition, the prohibitions set out in Article 6 are complemented by those set out in Article 7, where states will have to prohibit arms sales to states where there is an ‘overriding risk’ that the arms could be used to commit ‘serious’ violations of human rights law or international humanitarian law. The standard of ‘overriding’ for the prohibitions set out in Article 7 to apply remains vague. It probably, though, requires a very significant potential contribution to peace and security to override the potential negative consequences. In any event, difficult questions of interpretation subsist such as meaning of the notion of ‘serious human rights violations’ as there are no agreed definitions under international law.

As the Mexican representative, speaking on behalf of 96 States, said, the General Assembly made ‘a historic achievement’ of a long process. If adhered to and implemented in good faith the ATT will significantly reduce the humanitarian impact of the irresponsible transfer of weapons. It is unfortunately too late for the countless and silent victims in the ongoing armed conflict in Syria, but the instrument may prove to be useful to avert the next round of human rights violations and international crimes.

Dr Gilles Giacca (Programme Co-ordinator of the Oxford Martin School Programme on Human Rights for Future Generations) closely followed the United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty in New York. Further insights can be found on the Arms Trade Treaty legal blog. He also initiated the drafting of a detailed legal commentary, which will be issued by a leading academic publisher in 2014.


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