Landmark Arms Trade Treaty Enters into Force

The UN General Assembly approves the Arms Trade Treaty.Credit: UN
The UN General Assembly approves the Arms Trade Treaty.
Credit: UN

On December 24, 2014, the watershed United Nations Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) entered into force. The treaty, which is the first international instrument regulating the trade in conventional arms, creates a human rights framework to govern transfers of conventional arms, with the goal of curbing the flow of weapons that may be used to perpetrate human rights violations and crimes of war. [OHCHR Press Release]

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, heralded the new treaty as “a tool for States to prevent the violence and insecurity resulting from the flow of arms, and in so doing to fulfil their human rights obligations.” [OHCHR Press Release]

If implemented effectively, the treaty will put in place new, higher standards for the global arms trade, and codifies strict controls on the arms trade in international law. States will be required to analyze how arms will be used after transfer, and will be accountable when weapons are traded to groups or individuals likely to use them to violate human rights. [Oxfam] Sixty-one States have ratified the treaty to date.

The Need for a Global Arms Treaty

The ATT clarifies the link between the global weapons trade and the victims of armed conflict. [UN News Centre] Each year, on average, more than half a million people die due to the lax regulations governing the transfer of conventional weapons. [Amnesty International] The trade in arms compounds poverty, violence, and human rights abuses. Armed violence costs the countries of Africa an estimated $18 billion each year. [Oxfam]

Recognizing these issues, a group of NGOs began lobbying for an international regime to regulate the global arms trade in the early 1990s, after the first Gulf War, when it became evident that Iraq had been using arms supplied by all five Members of the UN Security Council. [Amnesty International] In 2000, a core group of NGOs developed a “Framework Convention on International Arms Transfers,” and in 2003 launched a global campaign to raise awareness about the draft treaty. Three years later, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution circulated by Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan, Kenya and the United Kingdom on an international arms treaty. By 2009, the UN Member States voted to open formal treaty negotiations. [Amnesty International]

Purpose and Scope of the ATT

The object and purpose of the ATT is to “[e]stablish the highest possible common international standards for regulating or improving the regulation of international trade in conventional arms,” and to eliminate illicit trade and diversion of such arms, in order to foster international and regional peace and security and “[r]educe human suffering.”ATT, art. 1.

The treaty covers eight categories of conventional arms:

(1) battle tanks

(2) armed combat vehicles

(3) large-calibre artillery systems

(4) combat aircraft

(5) attack helicopters

(6) warships

(7) missiles and missile launchers, and

(8) small arms and light weapons.

See ATT, art. 2.

The treaty prohibits transfer of conventional arms in three circumstances: first, if the transfer would violate obligations pursuant to measures adopted by the UN Security Council acting under their authority under the UN Charter to act in the interests of international peace and security; second, if the transfer would violate international agreements or obligations, such as those related to the illicit trade in conventional arms; and, third, if the State has knowledge at the time of transfer that the arms will be used in commission of war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity. See ATT, art. 6.

Where export is not prohibited, States must undertake an “objective and non-discriminatory” assessment to determine whether the transfer would “contribute to or undermine peace and security,” or could be used in the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law. If there is an “overriding risk” of such an outcome, the State party cannot authorize the export. See ATT, art. 8.

States parties are required to create national control systems and a national control list to implement the treaty. See ATT, art. 5. The national control systems are also intended to prevent the diversion of arms by assessing the risk that arms will be diverted and evaluating the utility of mitigating measures to prevent such diversion. States must also take measures to address diversions when they do happen, and are encouraged to exchange relevant information with other States to address them. See ATT, art. 11. States must maintain records of export authorizations or actual exports of conventional arms. See ATT, art. 12.

The treaty also provides that States may seek assistance, including with capacity building, financing, stockpile management, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programs. States in a position to provide such assistance must do so. The UN and other international or regional organizations or NGOs may likewise provide assistance. The treaty also establishes a voluntary trust fund to assist States with implementation. See ATT, art. 16. 

Entry into Force

The text of the ATT was finalized in March 2013, but failed to achieve the required unanimous approval from all 193 UN Member States at the Final UN Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty. [UN News Centre] A Member State then introduced a General Assembly draft resolution to adopt the ATT. Unlike at the conference, where unanimity was required, the Assembly only needed a simple majority to approve the text. On April 2, 2013, 154 States voted in favor of the treaty text, and the ATT was thereby officially adopted. [UN News Centre]

The ATT opened for signature on June 3, 2013. See UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, Signature and Ratification, Arms Trade Treaty. After signing the treaty, States must then formally declare their intent to be bound by it, by taking action at the domestic level to become a party to the treaty, and depositing its instrument of ratification, acceptance or approval with the Secretary General of the UN. Id. The treaty entered into force on December 24, 2014, 90 days after 50 States deposited their instrument of ratification. Id.

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