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former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
U.S. Joins Study of Arms Trade Treaty

Jeff Abramson

All 28 countries invited to do so, including the United States, sent representatives to a UN-sponsored experts meeting in February to explore a global arms trade treaty (ATT). The United States originally voted against starting the effort (see ACT, December 2006), prompting many to believe it would not participate in the process.

The Feb. 11-15 governmental group of experts meeting is the first of three such meetings slated to take place this year. The experts are charged with examining the “feasibility, scope and draft parameters for a comprehensive, legally binding instrument for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms.” The expert meetings are closed to the public and are not intended to be negotiations but rather to produce a set of recommendations that could lead to a treaty.

Many governments and civil society groups that have pushed for the UN effort believe that it could result in a treaty. In 2006, 153 countries voted to start the process. Last year, nearly 100 countries submitted their views on a possible legal instrument.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose country is seen as a leader of the ATT process, said in a Jan. 21 speech in India that “[b]ecause the threat and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is now compounded by the continuing proliferation of conventional weapons, and we know that one person is killed every minute from small arms, Britain will also work internationally to achieve a global arms trade treaty.”

In 2006, the United States voted against beginning the treaty process, contending that that the effort would be time-consuming and that any eventual treaty would contain standards weaker than existing U.S. rules. Nonetheless, U.S. nongovernmental groups urged the Bush administration to participate in part because the United States is the largest arms supplier in the world. The U.S. decision to attend came at the last minute, with Ambassador Don Mahley arriving to represent the United States at the meeting on its second day.

Participants in the meeting said that a number of countries expressed skepticism about the ATT concept, including China, Cuba, India, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States. Given that whatever recommendations emerge will need to be agreed to by consensus, they speculate that a final report would likely include a list of pros and cons on the treaty concept.

The experts group is chaired by Ambassador Roberto García Moritán of Argentina. In 2006, Moritán chaired a similar experts group on the UN Register of Conventional Arms, which recommended improvements to the reporting mechanism, including a standardized form for small arms. The register provides a process through which countries voluntarily report annually on certain conventional arms exports and imports. (See ACT, September and November 2007.)

Experts representing Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Romania, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States participated in the February meeting. They will meet again May 12-16 and July 28-Aug. 8, with recommendations expected later this year after the final meeting.