One Year Old, the Arms Trade Treaty Gains Traction

Sylvie Lucas, Luxembourg's ambassador to the United Nations, signs the Arms Trade Treaty at the UN on June 3, 2013. Observers say if enough countries ratify it soon, it could enter into force in 2014. Insider Images/Keith Bedford

Important changes may not happen overnight, but they do happen, and progress made on the Arms Trade Treaty in the last year is an example of how political will can work toward the common good.

Today, 18 countries are ratifying the treaty as part of a joint ceremony being held at the UN to mark the one-year anniversary of the treaty’s adoption on April 2, 2013. The treaty is the first internationally binding agreement to regulate the $85 billion annual trade in arms and ammunition.

It creates binding obligations for governments to assess all arms transfers to ensure that weapons will not be used for human-rights abuses, terrorism, transnational organized crime or violations of humanitarian law. It will require governments to refuse any transfers of weapons if there is a risk that countries will use them to violate human rights or commit war crimes. The goal of the treaty is to reduce the devastating humanitarian suffering caused worldwide when weapons and military equipment fall into the wrong hands.

The ratification by 18 countries in April brings the total number of states who have done so to 31, which is more than half of what is needed for the treaty to enter into force. It is widely expected that this will occur in the next six months.

Those ratifying the treaty today include Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain — five of the world’s top 10 weapons exporters — as well as Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, El Salvador, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Malta, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. It is estimated that with these countries on board, a quarter of all global arms sales will come under the jurisdiction of the treaty.

The United States, which accounts for the vast majority of global arms transfers, signed the treaty in September but has yet to ratify it. The US drew “key redlines” in negotiating the treaty, and its chances of passing through Congress are considered difficult.

Today’s event at the UN did not occur without controversy, either. The government of France, among those ratifying the treaty, is finalizing a multibillion-dollar deal to sell two highly sophisticated and very deadly warships to Russia. Russia has not signed the treaty yet, and that fact, coupled with its recent actions in Crimea, is causing many supporters of the treaty to raise their eyebrows about the French deal.

The Control Arms Coalition, a global network of organizations that advocates for the treaty, is calling on France to cancel the sale of the ships to a country that France itself has recognized as breaching international law. Some key European countries have also called on France to cancel the deal.

Master of Science in Humanitarian Studies at Fordham University

The ships’ offensive dangers are clear. When the sale was first discussed in 2008, the head of the Russian Navy, Vladimir Vysotsky, was widely reported as saying his forces would have been victorious in Georgia “in just 40 minutes” if Russia had been able to use Mistral warships.

So far, France has defended the deal — which was made before the treaty was adopted — noting that it will be up to the Russian government how and when to arm and use the ships; France, it says, is merely providing the vessels.

Some parties say that such actions make the treaty powerless, but others point out that once it enters into force, it is exactly these kinds of transactions, sales of warships in questionable circumstances, that will become illegal.

The rapid rate at which states are signing up to the treaty marks a significant shift in how the arms trade is perceived by the international community and the importance being attached to improving arms trade regulation to stem the flow of weapons. The treaty replaces the patchy and inconsistent regional and bilateral agreements that previously governed the arms trade and will improve transparency and reporting methods. Yet when the notion of a global regulatory framework for the arms trade was introduced in the 1990s, many governments and other officials scoffed, calling it a dream.

French warship
A Mistral warship, the kind being sold by France to Russia.

Twice, negotiations failed when a few governments blocked consensus and prevented the treaty from being adopted.

One year later, however, the fact that 118 states have signed the treaty represents remarkable progress for a pact that required six years of diplomatic negotiations and more than a decade of campaigning by grass-roots organizations and Nobel Peace laureates, among others.

Indeed, it has been a strong year for the treaty. Last June, foreign ministers and other high-level officials joined Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, at a ceremony to open the treaty for signature. Sixty-seven governments signed that day. More heads of state attending the annual high-level opening of the General Assembly signed the treaty in September. The treaty was also referenced in several resolutions passed by the General Assembly’s First Committee, which deals with disarmament, and was included in the first-ever Security Council resolution on small arms and light weapons adopted in September. Many governments that have ratified it have said that they were already applying the treaty’s provisions before it enters into force, such as Norway and Mexico.

Some civil society groups and countries are now looking ahead to its implementation. A number of initiatives have emerged over the last year, such as the development of an online baseline assessment survey to help governments measure their capacity to become treaty compliant.

Master of Science in Humanitarian Studies at Fordham University

Saferworld, a nongovernmental organization with a strong track record on treaty implementation, has convened an expert group on the Arms Trade Treaty, made up of governmental and civil society experts. The Control Arms Coalition plans to launch a monitoring project to hold future states parties to the treaty accountable, similar to other civil society watchdog projects for the treaties banning land mines and cluster munitions.

The treaty will enter into force 90 days after the 50th country ratifies it, which many say will happen by the fall. At that point, the treaty will become legally binding, and the real work begins.

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The UN Adopts an Arms Treaty ‘With Teeth’

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Allison Pytlak

Allison Pytlak

Allison Pytlak is the campaign manager of the Control Arms Coalition, a global alliance of more than 90 groups advocating for the Arms Trade Treaty. She has also worked for Mines Action Canada, the International Peace Bureau and Religions for Peace. Pytlak has a B.A. in international relations with honors from the University of Toronto and is a graduate student in international relations at CUNY's City College.

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