African States and the ATT Negotiations

By Guy Lamb

Africa is arguably the continent that has experienced the most destructive consequences of the largely unregulated global arms trade.

This point was pertinently emphasized by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who, in a video address to the arms trade treaty (ATT) negotiating conference this July, reminded government delegations that the “Liberian experience and other experiences in Africa and other parts of the world show that, without such a treaty, armed violence and wars will continue to be fueled by irresponsible arms transfers.”

Nonetheless, African states did not have a shared vision for an ATT during the period from the 2006 establishment of the ATT consultations at the United Nations until the start of the actual treaty negotiating conference this past July. In fact, the majority of African states played a relatively minor role in shaping the outcome of the ATT preparatory meetings, overshadowed by states that are major arms producers and states that devoted considerable diplomatic capital to securing a robust ATT.

The principal exceptions were Algeria, Egypt, and Kenya. Kenya was one of the co-authors of the key 2006 UN General Assembly resolution on the ATT and remained a major proponent of a robust treaty to govern the arms trade. Algeria and Egypt actively engaged in the ATT consultations and raised repeated concerns about the content of an ATT and manner in which it would be negotiated. In the 2012 ATT negotiation conference, however, sub-Saharan African states became more active, which led to them having a relatively influential role in the negotiations.

Prior to the 2012 negotiating conference, the absence of African unity on the content of a future ATT was evident in the formal statements prepared by the African Group. These statements typically included uncontroversial commitments to an ATT, but were short on detail.[1]

The fault lines between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa were particularly prominent. Some North African states, concerned that a treaty regulating arms transfers might undermine their ability to defend themselves in the context of the precarious Middle East dynamics, particularly relations between Israel and its neighbors and issues related to the ongoing Arab Spring, were apprehensive about an ATT. A large majority of sub-Saharan African states were supportive of the ATT process, largely because sub-Saharan Africa is the region most undermined by armed violence. In that region, there have been concerted efforts to combat the illicit proliferation of small arms and light weapons, along with ammunition. Zimbabwe was one of the exceptions, as it voted against the UN General Assembly resolutions in 2008 and 2009 to initiate and sustain formal discussions that would be the basis for ATT negotiations. Zimbabwe’s decision might have been due to internal political developments and diplomatic squabbles at the time.

According to a 2011 report,[2] 28 sub-Saharan African states were ranked in the top 58 countries experiencing lethal violence. In many of these African countries, small arms and light weapons and ammunition were among the main instruments of violence. In most cases, such weapons and ammunition would have originally been transferred from foreign countries to these African states, either legally or illegally. The high levels of violence have seriously undermined poverty reduction efforts.

More than three-quarters of African states have existing legal obligations that are directly relevant to an ATT, particularly subregional conventions and protocols to regulate and monitor the trade in small arms and light weapons and ammunition. This is especially the case in the Great Lakes region, the Horn of Africa, southern Africa, and West Africa. For example, all of the African subregional instruments dealing with small arms and light weapons require member states of the relevant subregional organization to cooperate in and share information on the implementation of these instruments, establish national controls to implement the provisions of these instruments, and adhere to UN Security Council arms embargoes.

There were a variety of general statements by more than half of the sub-Saharan African states during the four ATT preparatory committee meetings that took place in New York between July 2010 and February 2012. These states particularly highlighted the need for international standards to regulate the conventional arms trade, for the future treaty to include small arms and light weapons and ammunition, for humanitarian and human rights law to be taken into account in decisions on arms transfer authorizations, and for adequate international cooperation and assistance with regard to treaty implementation. Despite the firm normative commitments, however, the majority of statements lacked sufficient technical detail to have a sustained and noticeable impact on the outcome of the preparatory discussions. There are two main reasons for this state of affairs.

First, only a handful of sub-Saharan African states have industries that manufacture conventional arms and related technology, with even fewer states consistently exporting these weapons. South Africa, which is the most prominent arms exporter on the African continent, was the 16th-largest global exporter of conventional arms between 2007 and 2011, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Given the concentration of arms exports in the hands a small number of states, however, South Africa’s actual annual contribution to global arms exports during that period did not exceed 2 percent. In terms of imports, Africa accounted for only 9 percent of global trade, but South Africa was the principal African arms importer, accounting for 41 percent of sub-Saharan arms imports.[3] Consequently, conventional arms controls in most African countries were relatively unsophisticated compared to major arms-exporting states. As a result, for many of the states in question, there was insufficient national experience to formulate detailed technical interventions at the meetings.

Second, during the preparatory committee meetings, a significant number of African states did not include relevant arms control specialists on their delegations, mainly because of budgetary constraints. In many cases, states were represented by officials from their permanent missions to the UN. Lacking the necessary expertise, these officials tended to limit their interactions to reading out previously prepared statements from their capitals. These circumstances restricted the opportunities for African states to devise cooperative strategies, establish lobbying blocs, or to join interregional lobbying efforts. Certain African states did not actively engage in the preparatory committee meetings, perceiving that their views were sufficiently covered by the statements prepared by the African Group.

During the July negotiating conference, sub-Saharan African states were noticeably more outspoken in their views on an ATT and regularly presented substantial recommendations that had practical applications. These states also established lobbying initiatives, with the one pursued by the states from the Economic Community of West African States being the most prominent, or participated in multiregional petitioning efforts. Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and Zambia were some of the more prominent states in this regard. During the third week of the conference, at a critical point of the negotiations, a group of 74 states, 23 of which were from sub-Saharan Africa, compiled a statement that was read by the Malawian delegation. The statement called for an ATT to be comprehensive in its scope and to include robust arms transfer criteria.

The more proactive approach to an ATT by sub-Saharan African states was not an anomaly. Since September 2011, there had been considerable efforts by a variety of governments, intergovernmental organizations, UN agencies, and civil society entities to encourage more-substantial African involvement in the ATT process. Meetings, workshops, and seminars were held; research was undertaken; and ATT-related documents and resources were produced and distributed. In addition, the majority of African states included arms control officials or legal advisers on their delegations, which enhanced the states’ capacity to interact more substantively in the negotiations.

A key initiative was the attempt by the UN Regional Centre on Peace and Disarmament in Africa to facilitate the drafting of an African Union (AU) common position on an ATT. AU member states met in Togo in September 2011 to compile such a document, but it was not finalized because of the opposition from some North African states. Following consultations by the AU Secretariat, a second meeting was held in May in Ethiopia, with the financial support of the Australian government, in an attempt to reach greater consensus on a draft common position. Primarily due to the postponement of the 19th AU summit, the AU did not officially endorse the draft document.[4] Nonetheless, these developments empowered a greater number of African states to engage in the ATT negotiations more vigorously and substantively.

Three related processes also made important contributions to more-effective sub-Saharan African involvement in the ATT negotiations. First, in late February, government representatives from southern and East Africa participated in an ATT seminar in Kenya organized by the UN Institute for Disarmament Research with the support of the European Commission. Second, representatives from Amnesty International, Control Arms, and the International Action Network on Small Arms enthusiastically lobbied African governments to support a robust ATT. Third, in consultation with a number of African governments and with the financial support of the British government, the Institute for Security Studies compiled an ATT negotiation tool kit for African states in an attempt to contribute to a leveling of the ATT negotiation “playing field.”

On the final day of the negotiating conference, it became evident that, despite the efforts of numerous states, the conference participants would not be able to agree on a treaty text. Shortly before the closure of the conference, Mexico took the floor and read a statement that had been signed by 94 states, 15 of which were from Africa. The July 27 statement said in part,

We came to New York a month ago to achieve a strong and robust Arms Trade Treaty. We had expected to adopt such a draft Treaty today.

We believe we were very close to reaching our goals. We are disappointed this process has not come to a successful conclusion today. We are disappointed, but we are not discouraged.

Compromises have had to be made, but overall the text [that Roberto García Moritán, the conference president] put forward yesterday has the overwhelming support of the international community as a base for carrying forward our work.

Successfully negotiating an ATT within the UN system was always going to be a tall order, as the international conventional arms business is intrinsically linked to considerations of national security and national interest. Arguably, it was these considerations by two of the largest arms-producing states, namely Russia and the United States, that ultimately trumped the ATT aspirations of the majority of UN member states. The future of an ATT now will be determined by the UN General Assembly First Committee later this year. Either the treaty will be finalized by means of a General Assembly resolution, or UN member states will decide that they need a second round of negotiations. Given the significant amount of diplomatic capital that most African states have devoted to the ATT process, it is likely that these states will continue to advocate for a robust ATT in the coming months.

In light of the harm that African people and governments have suffered as a result of the poorly regulated arms trade, most African states have the moral authority to apply pressure on major arms-producing states to support the finalization of a robust ATT. The delayed outcome of the ATT process provides the AU with a key opportunity to make use of the enhanced African commitment to an ATT to revisit the AU common position on an ATT, as well as devise a strategy for the next round of negotiations.


Guy Lamb is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in South Africa. He has been working with various African governments for nearly a decade to improve arms control and disarmament systems and measures. He is principal author of the ISS report “Negotiating an Arms Trade Treaty: A Toolkit for African States” (2012).


1. For statements by the African Group, see

2. Geneva Declaration Secretariat, “Global Burden of Armed Violence 2011,” October 27, 2011,

3. Paul Holtom et al., “Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2011,” SIPRI Fact Sheet, March 2012,

4. See African Union, “African Union Common Position on an Arms Trade Treaty,” September 2011, (draft).