UN Votes to Adopt Arms Trade Treaty, Restricting Export of Weapons that May Be Used for Human Rights Violations

The UN General Assembly lauds adoption of the ATT
Credit: AFP

The United Nations (UN) General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to adopt an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) on April 2, 2013.  The treaty regulates international trade of conventional arms, and aims to “[contribute] to international and regional peace, security and stability.” ATT, art. 1.  Among other requirements, States Parties must prohibit the international transfer of arms whenever the government has knowledge that the weapons “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, or other war crimes as defined by international agreements to which it is a Party.” ATT, art. 6(3).

Additionally, the treaty would prohibit the export of conventional arms whenever the State determines – through a required assessment – that there is an overriding risk they may be used to undermine peace and security, commit terrorist acts, further organized crime, or to carry out serious violations of international humanitarian law or international human rights law. ATT, art. 7.

The ATT does not regulate domestic conventional arms trade.  Neither does the treaty apply to the transfer of arms for use by a State, so long as the weapons remain under its ownership. ATT, art. 2(3).

The treaty’s terms apply to all conventional weapons falling under the following categories:

(a) Battle tanks;
(b) Armoured combat vehicles;
(c) Large-calibre artillery systems;
(d) Combat aircraft;
(e) Attack helicopters;
(f) Warships;
(g) Missiles and missile launchers; and
(h) Small arms and light weapons.

ATT, art. 3.

The treaty was developed at the final UN Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty in New York, USA between March 18 and 28, 2013.  While the goal of the Conference was to reach consensus on the treaty’s text, it failed to do so, mainly because of opposition from North Korea, Syria, and Iran. [UNAl Jazeera]  UN Member States then referred the treaty to the General Assembly for a vote, which adopted the text with 154 votes in favor, 3 votes against from North Korea, Syria, and Iran, and 23 abstentions. [UN]  Starting June 3, States will be able to sign the treaty, which will enter into force 90 days after it gains 50 State signatures. [BBC]

While civil society efforts to achieve an international agreement have been ongoing for more than a decade, UN Member States first raised the possibility of adopting a treaty to regulate the international sale of conventional arms in 2006. [Amnesty]  In July of 2012, the UN held a previous conference on a possible arms trade treaty, which ended when the US announced it needed more time to consider the proposal. [Al Jazeera]  The United States also stated that it required a consensus at the final March conference in order to adopt the ATT, but that consensus was not met when Iran, North Korea, and Syria objected.  After more than six years, the UN has finally adopted the treaty with a record number of votes.

Human rights defenders and State actors alike have championed the ATT’s adoption and seem optimistic about its impact.  Brian Wood, head of Arms Control and Human Rights at Amnesty International, stated that while the ATT does not include everything Amnesty wanted, “it provides a firm foundation on which to build an international system to curb the flow of arms to those who would commit atrocities.”  And Thomas Countryman, Assistant Secretary of State for the United States, does not expect the treaty to have a real impact for quite some time, although he does believe it will help to reduce violence in the long term. [New York Times]