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May 19, 2021
Advancing the Arms Trade Treaty: An Interview With U.S. ATT Negotiator Thomas Countryman
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Interviewed by Daniel Horner and Daryl G. Kimball

Thomas Countryman took office as assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation on September 27, 2011. He joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1982. He was lead negotiator for the United States in the talks that produced the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) last year.

Arms Control Today spoke with Countryman in his office on March 12. Countryman was joined by William Malzahn, senior coordinator in the Office of Conventional Arms Threat Reduction. In the interview, Countryman explained the reasons that the United States signed the ATT, addressed domestic criticism of the pact, and looked ahead to the challenges that the treaty faces.

The interview was transcribed by Ashley Luer. It has been edited for clarity.

ACT: Thank you for doing this. If you could just start out by telling us, what does the Arms Trade Treaty set out to do, and why do you think it is needed?

Countryman: The United States has long believed that we have a responsibility to support friends around the world in the security sphere, but only to do so with a responsible policy. That’s why the United States has long had among the highest standards in the world for making decisions about exports of arms to other countries. We think that that has contributed to the net security of the world, and we believe strongly that other nations have an equal responsibility to do the same. What the Arms Trade Treaty does is to set minimum standards—not as high as the standards the United States has for arms exports but some minimum standards—for every country in the world that is going to do arms exports. As a consequence, we believe that once [the treaty] is faithfully implemented by countries around the world, it will reduce the illicit international trade in weapons in the world. It will reduce the capability of groups to sustain armed conflict, and it will better protect the human rights of individuals around the world. It won’t be 100 percent successful in all of those areas, but it will make a contribution in all of those areas. That is why it is necessary.

ACT: Could you give a little bit more detail about what impact it will have on the United States in terms of security, economic, humanitarian, and other policies, other issue areas?

Countryman: Everything that we try to do in our foreign policy around the world seeks both to advance U.S. economic and security interests and, to put it most simply, to make the world a better place. We think that the Arms Trade Treaty, [if] well implemented, will do both. First, it will advance the economic interests of the United States because it will reduce the possibility of unfair practices in arms trade and reduce the illicit arms trade around the world.

Second, it will better protect American citizens. We never forget our responsibility to American citizens who are overseas as soldiers, as diplomats, as businessmen, as missionaries, as tourists. If we can make even a small contribution to their safety by reducing the ready availability of illicit weapons around the world, we help to protect American citizens.

At the same time, we help to make the world a little bit safer for citizens of other nations. The Arms Trade Treaty by itself will not end the kind of violent ethnic and other conflicts that bedevil Africa today, but if it can reduce the intensity and increase the incentive for negotiated solutions, we will have done an important thing as Americans in cooperation with others to make the world a safer place. At the same time, the Arms Trade Treaty will have no effect upon American citizens exercising their constitutional rights within the United States. Zero. None whatsoever, despite a lot of misinformation to the contrary.

ACT: And, on that last point, could you elaborate why you think it won’t?

Countryman: Well, first, even though I’m happy to speak to Arms Control Today, we do not consider the Arms Trade Treaty to be an arms control treaty. It is a trade regulation treaty. Arms, armaments are a legitimate international commodity for trade, and they should be subject to the same kind of standards and regulations as other goods. To use the example so many have cited, whether it is an iPod or a banana,[1] weapons ought to have the same minimum standards before they go into international commerce.

The Arms Trade Treaty does not create in any form whatsoever any body, any entity that can dictate to the United States its internal laws and regulations on trade and possession of handguns. It can’t do it. There is nothing in the treaty that comes close to doing that.

At the same time, the treaty affirms that each state has the obligation to make its own decisions within its borders in accordance with its legal and constitutional system. The United States will continue to do that. What the United States’ regulations and laws about firearms are is not a matter in any way for the Arms Trade Treaty. It is a matter strictly for the Congress and the 50 U.S. states to decide.

ACT: Some in Congress have suggested that the control lists that the ATT references are some sort of registry. How would you respond to that charge?

Countryman: Some in Congress have repeated, unfortunately, a deliberate misrepresentation of the terms of the treaty made by some U.S. organizations. It is absolutely clear in the treaty, for anyone who has read more than two words of it, that the lists referred to are lists of categories, types of weapons that are to be controlled by each state for the purpose of import and export. There is no list whatsoever of gun owners that any state is required to make, that any state is required to report to anyone else. It is in the category of simply deliberate falsification of the clear terms of the treaty

ACT: So, you mentioned that weapons are commodities; they are traded as commodities. I know that as the ATT was negotiated, you were in consultations with the defense industry on the negotiations. How would you characterize their reaction to the final product? And how would you characterize how this will affect their ability to engage in their commerce going forward?

Countryman: [Companies in the U.S.] defense industry not only ha[ve] grown used to the very complex, high-standard legislation that the U.S. uses in export decisions; they embrace it. They realize that it’s there for the important purpose of protecting American national security interests, and in that sense, it is good for their own business as well. The industry representatives that we consulted with before, during, and after the negotiations believe as strongly as I do that there is nothing in the treaty that requires the United States to change any of our strong regulations concerning arms exports. So, a concern that some of them may have had before the negotiations—that this would make exports of weapons from the United States more difficult—has not materialized, and they are satisfied by that fact. If anything, and I wouldn’t exaggerate this effect, I believe there will be a positive effect in this way. By requiring other states and companies that compete with the U.S. defense industry to be more transparent and set a higher standard for their exports, to a degree, it begins to level the playing field between U.S. firms that play by the highest standards—the highest, tightest rules—and companies in other countries that will be required to begin playing by some rules.

ACT: I want to go back to the issue of the benefits, both specifically and more generally. You talked about lessening the intensity of conflict and reducing incentives. Can you give some specific examples of countries that have the kind of civil conflict you are talking about—the Central African Republic or South Sudan or other examples you might choose? What kinds of effects might the ATT have there?

Countryman: Well, I don’t want to get too hypothetical. The roots of any of the conflicts that afflict Africa today are deep. The conflicts are not caused by the availability of weapons, but they are sustained by the availability of weapons. If not only exporting countries but, crucially, the African countries themselves implement fully the Arms Trade Treaty, including not only the export provisions but the import provisions; if African countries make a determined effort to control their own stockpiles of legitimate weapons for the police and the army; and if African countries come under greater scrutiny as to which governments are actively exporting weapons to fuel civil conflicts in neighboring countries, if we can do all of those things, then the potential is great for reducing the level of violence in these various civil conflicts. Now, note that the Arms Trade Treaty and its requirements are only one part of that formula. But it is very much my hope that the existence and the implementation of the Arms Trade Treaty will provide the impetus for all of those steps that Africans and others can take to reduce violence.

ACT: It’s both the establishment of the standards and the transparency, the reporting requirement, things like that?

Countryman: Yes, and it is also taking advantage of the tools that are built into the ATT that encourage and facilitate cooperation among states against gray-market and black-market trade in weapons. These are measures that we should take full advantage of.

ACT: Can you talk a bit about the bigger picture? How does the ATT fit into some of the larger policy goals of the Obama administration?

Countryman: In foreign policy, again, the Obama administration is dedicated to reducing and solving conflicts around the world wherever we can. Our policies on arms exports are aimed not at enriching American companies or providing American jobs, though those are important. Rather, they are aimed at helping countries to establish the rule of law within their own borders and to secure their borders against any external threats. In general, we are proud of the record of American military sales and military assistance to friends and allies around the world.

Those efforts are undermined if the trade in weapons is utterly unconstrained, and if manufacturers and exporters have no controls whatsoever, no standards whatsoever, that increases the threat to legitimate democratic governments around the world that we are trying to support. So in that sense, I think that the interests of the Obama administration are exactly the same as the interests of the vast majority of governments around the world. The target here is not any particular country. It is, rather, those individuals who participate in this trade without any ethical standards, and those few governments around the world that actively use weapons to kill their own people and their neighbors.

ACT: How do you think the U.S. signature on the treaty will help shape the evolution of the ATT? Do you think that U.S. actions in particular will encourage other countries to join?

Countryman: Well, there are two different questions there: one is the coming into force of the ATT, and the second is the evolution. On the second point, evolution, we don’t see a need for the treaty itself to evolve in the near future. In fact, the treaty contains provisions that say it can’t be amended within the next few years. We need to see how it works—and by “we,” I mean the world, not just the U.S.—before we can consider whether it needs to be strengthened or loosened or amended in some way. It needs to get into practice, and that is a matter of national implementation rather than an international discussion of tinkering with the treaty. So in that sense, evolution is postponed. In the sense of coming into force, I think we have a dozen countries that have now ratified. We may get several more this year, which means that it is likely we meet the standard of 50 by the end of this year or early next year [for bringing] the treaty in[to] force.

The fact that the United States has signed the treaty is significant in several ways. First, it provides an incentive for other states that are major arms exporters to go ahead and sign the treaty rather than to hide behind a lack of signature from the United States. Secondly, it signals to the rest of the world that we didn’t simply accept this treaty at the negotiations last year; we embrace it. It is not a panacea for all the world’s violence, but it is a step forward in many ways, and we wish to see as many states [as possible] in the world sign it and ratify it.

Third, by signing it, we enable the United States to be represented in the discussions about international cooperation, including the mundane things such as setting up this very tiny implementation support unit for the ATT and holding annual meetings to review its operation.[2] We give ourselves a seat at the table in that sense, so for all those reasons, the U.S. signature is important for the early history of the ATT.

ACT: To pick up on a couple of points you made there: There is signing, and then there is ratification. So, could you describe the Obama administration’s efforts on plans for ratification of the ATT? For example, what is the timeline for preparing the supporting documents that you would transmit to the Senate and so on?

Countryman: The plan is to do it right. We are in the process right now of conducting an article-by-article review of the treaty and comparing it with all relevant U.S. legislation so that we can report accurately to the Congress on all the implications of the legislation. I’ve been satisfied throughout the negotiations and since that the treaty is already 100 percent consistent with existing U.S. legislation. In the end, that is not my call. It is something that has to be reviewed carefully by lawyers and reported on carefully to the Senate, and that is the process we are in now.

ACT: Do you think U.S. ability to influence the implementation of the ATT is weakened because the United States is not moving forward rapidly with ratification? I think that most people do not expect this to happen anytime soon. Can fill us in a little bit on that?

Countryman: I’ll put it conversely: our ability to influence it will be enhanced once we have ratified it.

ACT: Right, but the fact that it will not be ratified very soon, is that weakening your ability to influence it now?

Countryman: Why do you have to be so negative? (Laughter.) I gave it to you in a positive way.

ACT: Do you want to add to your answer?

Countryman: Look, I do mean to phrase it positively because we do intend to seek ratification. The reason I don’t want to phrase it in the negative way that you posed the question is because it is not that issue that is driving the speed with which the ratification process proceeds. We will do our job as thoroughly as we need to before we submit it to the Senate for [advice and consent]. We won’t be pushed by anything happening among those states that have already ratified it. We believe we have a seat at the table by logic and necessity, if not by fact of ratification.

ACT: So, you don’t see any obstacle at the conference of states-parties from the fact that you are not a state-party? You think you will be still able to participate fully, as fully as if you were a state-party?

Countryman: I have known very few situations where the U.S. has not been able to make its views known.

ACT: Under recently passed legislation, the U.S. government cannot spend any funds to implement the ATT.[3] What effect will that legislation have on your actions?

Countryman: In my view, none. We will, of course, honor all legislation passed by the Congress, including the legislation passed by the Congress that requires us to carefully review every arms export according to standards that are not only fully consistent with the ATT, but higher standards than the treaty requires. So, we don’t need to do anything differently to honor, to be in compliance with the legislation you mention, and at the point of ratification, we won’t need to do anything differently to meet our requirements under the ATT.

ACT: So, there is no tension, there is no difficulty, in meeting the requirements both of the legislation and your obligations as a signer of the treaty?

Countryman: That’s the beauty of the system designed by the Congress and implemented consistently by successive administrations. We believe in high standards, and we are going to continue to implement those high standards, regardless of the particular debate about this treaty.

ACT: The United States recently issued a new policy on arms transfers. Could you briefly explain the policy, particularly the new elements of it?

Countryman: Only very briefly. The first articulation of the conventional arms transfer policy, the CAT policy, was made by the Clinton administration in 1995. In the Obama administration a few years ago, we realized the need to update it in order simply to review what has changed. I think the changes more clearly indicate the emphasis that the United States places upon humanitarian concerns, human rights concerns, and international stability in the decisions that we make on arms exports. In that way, it better reflects the reality of how successive administrations have implemented a conventional arms transfer policy.

ACT: To what extent was the new policy influenced by the ATT, and the United States’ status as a signer of that treaty?

Countryman: I don’t think there was an influence in either direction. They are independent exercises that happened to occur at the same time. Of course, we checked carefully to make sure that we were being consistent in each exercise, but there is nothing in the CAT policy that is affected by the terms negotiated at the ATT conference. As I said, we already have higher standards for ourselves than we ever could have accomplished in the ATT negotiations.

ACT: So, the two processes went on completely parallel tracks without real interaction other than what you just said—checking to make sure that they were consistent?

Malzahn: You did have some of the same people working on both exercises, so they were certainly aware—each side was aware of what was going on. It wasn’t exactly the same people, but some of the same people worked on both the CAT policy update and worked on the ATT. So they weren’t independent in the sense that they were functioning in a vacuum, independently.

Countryman: The point is that both of them are guided by what has been consistent policy passed by the Congress, enforced and implemented by successive administrations of both parties. What we have actually done [by having carried out established U.S. policy] is what influenced both the new CAT policy and the ATT negotiations. There wasn’t a need to go dream up a new concept in order to influence both of them.

ACT: Okay, maybe I’ll just make a statement and you can tell me if it’s correct, and if not, you can change it: There is a changing sense of what is an appropriate regime for the arms trade. It is reflected globally by the Arms Trade Treaty, and the U.S. arms trade policy is also a reflection of that. Is that true?

Countryman: No, no. The fact that there has been a change outside of the U.S. in what is appropriate in arms transfer is what led to the impetus to negotiate an arms trade treaty, and we were happy to participate in a negotiation that resulted in a treaty that goes halfway towards meeting the high standards of the United States and that is fully consistent with our constitutional requirements and our security and economic interests. That happened outside the U.S. Our guidance for negotiation is the high-standard policy that we have implemented for decades.

What your statement implied is that the world changed, and this had an effect on U.S. policy. I don’t see it that way. Our policies are consistent, consistently stronger decade by decade. And if the rest of the world came around to the point that they are willing to embrace some of what the U.S. does, great, but it doesn’t change the U.S. approach to these issues.

ACT: You’ve worked many, many months on this treaty, you and your team, and have talked with many of your diplomatic colleagues. The treaty is now negotiated. It may enter into force in a year or so. What do you see as the biggest challenges for this treaty over the next, let’s say, five years in terms of ensuring that it is as effective as it can be both in terms of what individual nations need to do and in terms of what all the nations together need to do? What would you list as or describe as some of the key challenges we need to watch out for and the states-parties need to maintain focus on?

Countryman: Well first, we did work hard, and it was not just the State Department. It was a strong interagency team that looked at our negotiating approach and at the text submitted from every possible angle, whether it’s Department of Justice, Department of Defense, the White House, the State Department, and many others—the Department of Commerce crucially. There’s a couple of genuine heroes who did this work. One is right here, Bill Malzahn, who has been recognized by the secretary [of state] for his contribution, especially intellectual contribution, to this effort ever since it was first discussed in the international arena. And the other is our dear friend Don Mahley, who passed away earlier this month, who was the key negotiator on all of these points. These were the two who really made an amazing contribution to the ultimate success last year.

You asked, “What is a challenge?” If I could give you a very general answer: the challenge will be that too many countries read the letter of the treaty rather than the goals of the treaty, that there is a focus on writing export control laws even for countries that don’t do any exports, and that countries don’t pay enough attention to the requirements for strong import legislation and enforcement and that they don’t pay enough attention to the possibilities within the treaty for multilateral cooperation against illegal arms trade. For some countries, I would worry that the requirement to take into account human rights, humanitarian law, and other considerations becomes a box-checking rather than a serious risk assessment.

I have no doubt that countries that sign and ratify the treaty will implement the minimum requirements. The challenge will be for countries to look beyond the minimum bureaucratic requirements and actually focus on the promise, the potential that this treaty offers the world.

ACT: Do you have anything else you want to say?

Malzahn: The challenge that we face is making sure that this treaty doesn’t become just another piece of paper out there. Unfortunately, in the small arms area in particular, there are a number of treaties out there that were signed and as soon as states—some states—signed the treaty, that was the end of their involvement with the treaty. They said, “Our obligation is now done; we’ve signed this,” and they’ve made no efforts to actually implement the treaty.

ACT: What treaties are you talking about, for example?

Malzahn: Whether it’s things like the International Tracing Instrument[4] or some of the other things related—this is, again, particularly true on small arms and light weapons. If you look at Africa, there are number of regional agreements among the Southern African Development Community[5] and some of the other African countries where they agree, for example, on a total ban on imports of small arms and light weapons. Yet, the countries that have signed it are still importing small arms and light weapons into their region even though there is a regional ban on it. So, what we need to do on the ATT is to have states—as [UK lead negotiator] Jo Adamson said during the negotiations, we negotiate as if implementation mattered. We need to follow through and make sure that states actually implement the treaty, the exporting states as well as the importing states. That is what Tom was getting at, the balance of obligations on the exporters and the importers. It is on both sides, and we cannot just focus on one side.

On small arms and light weapons in particular, which was one of the major driving forces for this treaty, it is important to have this treaty actually implemented and carried out by the people who signed the treaty. In some cases, it’s going to require assistance to build capacity to implement the treaty, and other things, international cooperation.

ACT: Few states have the capacity to regulate the arms trade like the United States does.

Malzahn: With this treaty, for the first time, there is now an international obligation that each state that joins the treaty assumes national responsibility for the arms that leave its territory, as well as the arms that enter its territory. Some of these states that don’t have these kinds of things in place are going to want help in doing what they haven’t been able to do on their own.

Countryman: The United States, specifically this bureau, has extensive programs in more than 60 nations around the world in which we help states design strategic trade control laws and improve their border security capabilities. We do that in conjunction with the departments of Defense and Homeland Security and others. The European Union has similar programs to help states around the world. An example of the thing we have to keep an eye on is that the U.S. or the European Union doesn’t simply help a state in Africa or Asia write a new law. That’s insufficient. We not only have to help them write a new law if they ask for the help, we have to help them build the capacity to enforce the laws. With the ATT, we can’t stop at a half-measure of just meeting the letter of the law. We’ve got to help states have the capacity to make it real.

Malzahn: As part of that national control system when states pass the law, we want the laws to not just be a piece of paper, we want them actually to make a difference and to actually result in positive action.

ACT: Thank you, gentlemen.




1. See “Why We Need a Global Arms Trade Treaty,” Oxfam International, n.d.., http://www.oxfam.org/en/campaigns/conflict/controlarms/why-we-need-global-arms-trade-treaty.

2. Article 18 of the treaty describes the secretariat, which is to have a “minimized structure.” For the text of the treaty, see https://unoda-web.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Ch_XXVI_08.pdf#page=22.

3. Under Section 7075 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2014, “None of the funds appropriated by this Act may be obligated or expended to implement the Arms Trade Treaty until the Senate approves a resolution of ratification for the Treaty.” For the text of the act, see http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-113hr3547enr/pdf/BILLS-113hr3547enr.pdf.

4. The International Tracing Instrument commits UN member states to a series of measures designed to improve the traceability of small arms and light weapons in crime and conflict situations.

5. The members are Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.