Letter to the Editor: Too ‘Lite’ on the Arms Trade Treaty

In “How to Reach Consensus on an Arms Trade Treaty” (January/February 2012), Andrew Wood rightly states that industry would have a major role in implementing an eventual arms trade treaty (ATT) and highlights the value of its engagement as the international community meets to finalize treaty text this summer. He also forthrightly identifies a number of sticking points in the negotiations and properly seeks to dismiss the distraction caused by members of the firearms industry and sport shooter community.

Unfortunately, he repeats a narrative being spun by the United States and some other states that the best course of action is to seek a “lite” treaty that is short and simple. Although there are certainly levels of detail that may go too far, a too weakly defined treaty runs the real risk of creating too much freedom for countries to omit items that they do not want to see included or providing a stamp of approval for arms transfers that are irresponsible.

Although Wood notes that the moral argument for an ATT is clear, he characterizes the aim of an ATT as “to regulate global trade…more effectively, not to reduce or to limit the scope for legal trade.” In doing so, he dismisses too quickly the humanitarian and moral reasons that motivate most countries’ and civil society members’ engagement in the ATT endeavor. For us, controlling the arms trade is about saving and protecting lives. Although business and arms trade can be compatible, they are at odds when arms trade results in human rights abuses, violations of international humanitarian law, and actions that undermine development. The treaty must establish the supremacy of these human values in determining what is responsible trade, not just take them into account.

Wood stresses the importance of agreement among the UN Security Council’s five permanent members (P5), suggesting in particular that China and Russia may be aiming for a politically binding agreement rather than a legally binding treaty. The wrangling within the council over Syria, along with Russia’s continued arming of the Assad regime, certainly has demonstrated that P5 agreement always will be a challenge. But the Security Council’s failure also points to the reason that a treaty is so desperately needed—to resolve more universally the question of what constitutes responsible arms trade. The best course of action in thinking about the P5 is not one of weakening the treaty, but instead making clear to the five countries that the true mainstream sentiment is to reach a treaty of the highest possible standard.

In the run-up to the July negotiations, an important role for industry is to make the case that robust regulation really is possible and beneficial. Indeed, many Western companies already are operating in highly regulated environments, and Wood notes that “ethical and reputational factors in public and private investment are playing an increasing part in where the smart money flows.” Last year, a group of 21 investors, who collectively own or manage $1.2 trillion in assets, released a global investors statement on an ATT. They argue from a business perspective for an ATT that would meaningfully enshrine clear humanitarian and human rights criteria and regulate a broad scope of conventional arms, including ammunition. That message is one that industry should promote.


Jeff Abramson is director of the secretariat for Control Arms, a global civil society alliance campaigning for a strong arms trade treaty.