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"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
Arms Trade Treaty Discussion Creeps Forward
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Jeff Abramson

More than 140 countries voted at the UN First Committee to continue discussion next year on the creation of a global arms trade treaty, marking some progress on a resolution first passed in 2006. The United States voted against the measure and has not yet decided whether to continue its participation in the discussions. With or without the world's top arms trader, significant hurdles exist in reaching a legally binding instrument. Continued slow progress raises the possibility that countries may opt to fashion a treaty outside of traditional UN mechanisms, as was recently done in concluding a cluster munitions agreement.

In 2006 the UN General Assembly voted to work toward establishing "common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional weapons." In 2007, more than 100 countries submitted opinions on what is generally referred to as an arms trade treaty (ATT). The United Nations also empowered a group of governmental experts (GGE) to study the "feasibility, scope and draft parameters for a comprehensive, legally binding instrument." (See ACT, December 2006.) After three meetings earlier this year, the GGE on Aug. 26 adopted by consensus a carefully crafted final report that called for further study within the UN in a step-by-step manner and on "the basis of consensus."

A European diplomat told Arms Control Today in an e-mail Nov. 19 that a 2008 GGE agreement on more substantive issues was not possible given that some participating countries were opposed to an ATT. Nonetheless, a U.S. Department of State official told Arms Control Today Nov. 7 that progress had been made in the group. British Ambassador for Arms Control and Disarmament John Duncan told Arms Control Today in an e-mail Nov. 25 that his country was "very pleased with the progress made" in the GGE.

The GGE report called attention to the "need to prevent diversion of conventional arms from the legal trade to the illicit trade" and recognized "that there are different motivations for conventional arms production and acquisition." According to the document, experts agreed that any ATT "would need to respect the sovereignty and rights of every State under the Charter of the United Nations," a reference to self-defense provisions in the UN Charter. Still missing, however, was a "clear definition of the fundamental goals and objectives" of a potential ATT.

After the GGE process concluded, the United Kingdom, which has been championing the effort, continued its lobbying campaign. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband stated Sept. 9 in The Independent that "we need a global, effective, Arms Trade Treaty. It is bizarre that while treaties and conventions have existed for several decades to control the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, there is no equivalent global arrangement to stop weapons flooding into conflict zones."

When the First Committee took up the ATT this fall, the State Department official said, the resolution's drafters decided to drop the GGE's call for proceeding on the basis of consensus in an effort to keep individual countries from holding up further progress. Nonetheless, the First Committee resolution, which had 82 co-sponsors, did maintain a step-by-step approach and kept the process within the UN, moving it to a UN open-ended working group, a forum which all UN members can attend. It further called for up to six one-week sessions to discuss the treaty starting in March 2009 with a one-day organizational session on Feb. 27.

In voting against the measure Oct. 31, U.S. ambassador Christina Rocca strongly criticized the removal of consensus-process language. She said, "The only way to achieve a balanced and effective international mechanism for controlling trade in conventional arms is to proceed on a consensus basis." She noted a number of other U.S. objections including the lack of time to "pause and reflect" before the open-ended working group begins. The State Department official indicated that the United States was prepared to overlook these objections and support the resolution if it had included the consensus-based provisions. The official also indicated that a decision on whether the United States will participate in the open-ended working group has not been made and that the refusal to include "four words from the GGE report has made the decision more difficult."

In defending the approach, Duncan argued Nov. 25 that some UN member states would not "agree to give some nations a veto." He added that the group will "work on the basis of majority, but...strive to achieve consensus in the first instance."

Without addressing future U.S. participation, Rocca also expressed skepticism about an ATT, stating that "we support the goal of promoting responsibility in arms transfers and reducing the destabilizing trade in illicit arms, but we do not believe a global Arms Trade Treaty would accomplish that goal." She argued against concluding "a weak ATT [that] would legitimize an international standard based on a lowest common denominator" and that the "only way to convince all major arms exporters to sign on to the ATT would be to weaken its provisions."

Duncan countered these concerns, writing, "if those states already have a high standard of control then we can work hard to ensure that the common approach is the highest possible. The fact that the arms industry itself increasingly supports an ATT with high common standards indicates that the risk of 'lowest common denominator' is not as likely as some fear."

If the goal of an ATT is to have the world's major arms suppliers and purchasers agree to common standards, there are additional hurdles aside from U.S. reluctance. Other major arms-trading countries, including China, India, Pakistan, and Russia, participated in the GGE but abstained in the First Committee vote and have been seen as reluctant to agree to strong measures in the past. (See ACT, March 2008.)

Middle Eastern countries may also raise objections. A group of 10 Arab League states abstained during the First Committee vote, citing concerns that criteria on human rights and sustainable development might be used against importing countries, according to the First Committee Monitor. The Near East is the top arms importing region in the developing world. In 2007, Saudi Arabia, a member of the abstaining group, was the top developing-country arms purchaser.

The UN General Assembly is expected to give final approval in December to the First Committee resolution. Additional countries that did not vote for the resolution in October may then decide to do so. Nonetheless, the European diplomat indicated that there was little hope of short- or medium-term results within the UN process.

Regarding a timeline until a text for a legally binding instrument would be available, Duncan noted that the open-ended working group "has scheduled six sessions though 2011. Whether we will need more sessions to conclude an instrument after that date, it is too early to tell."

A slow-paced UN effort could lead to a new initiative outside of traditional fora. Many African and Latin America countries that are particularly impacted by the illicit small arms trade are strong supporters of an ATT. So too are a number of the nongovernmental organizations that have provided leadership to the recently concluded Convention on Cluster Munitions. The backers of that effort went outside of the established Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons process to more quickly reach agreement on legally binding text. The European diplomat indicated that a similar "fast track" effort could be launched if meaningful progress is not made in the next two to three years.