Senior diplomats from 67 European, Latin American, Asian, and African states signed the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) at the United Nations on June 3.
The result of seven years of negotiations, the ATT is the first global treaty to establish common international standards that must be met before states may authorize transfers of conventional weapons or may export ammunition and weapons parts and components. The ATT also prohibits transfers that would lead to war crimes and attacks on civilians, and it requires states to report annually on all authorized arms exports.
Addressing the delegates at the signing ceremony, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared that “the world has decided to finally put an end to the free-for-all nature of international weapons transfers.” In 2012, states engaged in arms transfers totaling more than $85 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service. That figure does not include transfers through the black market.
Many leading arms-supplier states, including the United Kingdom, Germany, and France, signed the treaty, as did many developing states in conflict zones. Several treaty supporters including the United States did not sign immediately, but are expected to do so in the coming months.
In a written statement read at the ceremony, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the treaty “is an important contribution to efforts to stem the illicit trade in conventional weapons, which fuels conflict, empowers violent extremists, and contributes to violations of human rights.”
Kerry said the United States “welcomes the opening of the Arms Trade Treaty for signature, and we look forward to signing it as soon as the process of conforming the official translations is completed satisfactorily.” At a June 17 forum in Washington, Thomas Countryman, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said, “I think we’ll be ready to sign the treaty” when that process is complete.
U.S. and UN officials told Arms Control Today that the process for ensuring the treaty text is identical in all six official UN languages will be formally completed by Aug. 28. At the June 3 ceremony, no other state raised concerns about conforming the translations.
As of June 25, a total of 74 states had signed the treaty; 50 states must sign and ratify it to trigger its entry into force.
The ATT is the product of nearly two decades of advocacy and diplomacy. The process began with a Nobel laureates’ initiative in 1995, in which eight peace prize winners called for tight regulation of the global weapons trade. It advanced in the United States with the 1999 International Arms Sales Code of Conduct Act, which was championed by Kerry, who was then a senator. That law required the U.S. president to begin negotiations on a multilateral arms export regime.
In October 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that the United States would support the arms trade treaty negotiation process and would vote in favor of a General Assembly resolution creating a treaty conference. The conference formally convened in July 2012, but fell short of reaching consensus on a final text.
Beginning in 2010, the United States, the world’s largest arms supplier, played a key role in the negotiations, especially during the final two-week-long March 2013 diplomatic conference, which failed to reach agreement due to opposition from Iran, North Korea, and Syria. Washington and other key capitals then moved the treaty for a vote at the UN General Assembly on April 2, where it was approved 156-3 with 22 abstentions. (See ACT, May 2013.)
Two major arms suppliers, China and Russia, did not attend the signing ceremony. China supported the treaty text during the final negotiating conference, but did not vote for the treaty at the UN General Assembly because it said it favored agreement by consensus. Russia has said the ATT does not include strong enough prohibitions against diversion to nonstate actors and that it is reviewing the treaty.
India, the world’s largest arms buyer, did not attend the signing ceremonies. New Delhi objected to the deletion of a provision during the March negotiations that would have allowed defense trade agreements to supersede ATT requirements.
Nevertheless, nongovernmental campaigners were encouraged. “The signing of the Arms Trade Treaty gives hope to the millions affected by armed violence every day,” said Anna Macdonald of the humanitarian group Oxfam in a statement delivered at the June 3 gathering. “For generations the arms trade has been shrouded in secrecy, but from now on, it will be open to scrutiny,” she said.
Several governments highlighted the work necessary to achieve entry into force and effective implementation of the treaty. The states-parties must bear “[t]he primary responsibility” for effective implementation and ensure that the treaty “is not a mere decoration in our bookshelves,” said Ramadhan M. Mwinyi, Tanzania’s deputy permanent representative to the UN. “This treaty should provide…a break from a spiral of violence currently being exacerbated by illicit arms and arms trade…particularly in Africa,” he said.
Alistair Burt, undersecretary of state at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, called on all states to sign and ratify the ATT and begin the process of treaty implementation. Burt said that “the world has already waited too long and we should not and will not lose the momentum gained. Our goal is early entry into force and universal application.”