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Arms Trade Treaty

Information about the Arms Trade Treaty.

U.S. to Quit Arms Trade Treaty


May 2019
By Jeff Abramson and Greg Webb

The United States will drop out of the Arms Trade Treaty, the 2013 pact designed to regulate the international trade of conventional arms, President Donald Trump announced April 26.

Speaking to the National Rifle Association on April 26, President Donald Trump displays an order he signed during the speech for the United States to reject the Arms Trade Treaty. (Photo Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)“The United States will be revoking the effect of America’s signature from this badly misguided agreement,” Trump told a large audience at the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in Indianapolis. “The United Nations will soon receive a formal notice that America is rejecting this treaty.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry signed the pact in 2013, but the United States has not ratified it. On stage in Indianapolis, Trump signed a message to the U.S. Senate asking it to discontinue the treaty’s ratification process.

International and U.S. treaty supporters decried Trump’s decision. The pact is the third major arms-related agreement from which the United States has withdrawn since he took office in January 2017.

Latvian Ambassador Janis Karklins, who will preside over the upcoming August 26-30 conference of the treaty's states parties in Geneva, said, “I hope that the U.S. administration will reconsider its decision in the future.”

“This is yet another myopic decision that jeopardizes U.S. security based on false premises and fearmongering,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was echoed by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) who said, “It is abhorrent to use international diplomacy for blatant political pandering.”

Although popular today internationally, the treaty was not concluded easily. Measures to curb illegal and define responsible arms sales were discussed for decades, and a special treaty negotiating process failed in 2013 when Iran, North Korea, and Syria refused to join a consensus agreement. Instead, the pact was taken to the UN General Assembly days later and approved there against their “no” votes. It entered into force on Dec. 24, 2014. Today, the treaty has 101 states-parties and another 34 signatories that have not yet ratified.

The treaty is the first global accord to regulate a broad array of conventional weapons. It establishes common international standards that must be met before states authorize weapons transfers. The treaty generally seeks to reduce the illicit arms trade, reduce human suffering caused by illegal and irresponsible arms transfers, improve regional security and stability, and promote accountability and transparency by state-parties concerning transfers of conventional arms.

U.S. negotiators made clear during the treaty-making process that the pact would not threaten the right to bear arms afforded by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It has no authority over national gun control laws.

Nevertheless, U.S. gun-rights organizations, led by the NRA, have alleged that the treaty would impose limits on U.S. domestic gun sales, and Trump repeated those claims in his NRA speech. “Under my administration, we will never surrender American sovereignty to anyone. We will never allow foreign bureaucrats to trample on your Second Amendment freedom.”

Such rhetoric was misplaced, according to Thomas Countryman, the lead U.S. negotiator of the treaty and now the chair of the Arms Control Association board. “The treaty, if ratified by the U.S. Senate, would not require the United States to change anything in its law or procedures,” he said. “The president's action today is yet another mistaken step that threatens to make the world less
safe rather than more secure.”

Trump to revoke U.S. signature of treaty regulating international trade of conventional weapons.

Trump Move to Withdraw from Arms Trade Treaty Counterproductive

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For Immediate Release: April 26, 2019

Media Contacts: Daryl Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107

In a speech before the National Rifle Association, President Donald Trump declared today that the United States would be "revoking the effect" of the U.S. signature of the global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), and taking the treaty back from the Senate. The treaty which entered into force in December 2014, is the first global treaty to regulate the conventional arms trade. The Obama administration signed the treaty in 2014, and the treaty is before the Senate for consideration for ratification.

Key security experts and former officials sharply criticized the move as misguided, counterproductive, and dangerous.
 
The ATT establishes common international standards that must be met before states authorize transfers of conventional weapons or export ammunition and weapons parts and components. It aims to reduce the illicit arms trade, reduce human suffering caused by illegal and irresponsible arms transfers, improve regional security and stability, and promote accountability and transparency by state-parties concerning transfers of conventional arms.
 
The treaty came into force on December 24, 2014 and has a total of 101 states-parties and 135 signatory states.
 

QUICK QUOTES

"The President's action today is yet another mistaken step that threatens to make the world less safe, rather than more secure. The ATT, if ratified by the U.S. Senate, would not require the United States to change anything in its law or procedures. It is sad, but to be expected, that this president opposes efforts to require other countries to meet the high standards of U.S. military export decisions."
   —Thomas Countryman, former assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation and lead U.S. negotiator on the Arms Trade Treaty

"In rejecting the Arms Trade Treaty, Donald Trump joins the ranks of the leaders of the only three states—Iran, Syria and North Korea—who voted to oppose the adoption of this common-sense treaty."
   —Thomas Countryman, former assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation and lead U.S. negotiator on the Arms Trade Treaty

“President Trump’s decision to unsign the ATT is misguided and not consistent with U.S. national security or economic interests. The ATT was intended prevent the irresponsible and illegal transfer of conventional arms to commit violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. By turning its back on multilateral diplomacy yet again, the United States is disregarding global norms and allowing nefarious actors to trade weapons with impunity. Walking away from a treaty that includes nearly all of the United States' closest allies and partners, the United States is instead choosing to be in the company of governments that routinely flout responsible transfer controls."
   —Rachel Stohl, managing director, Stimson Center, and former consultant to the UN ATT negotiations

"In contrast to the Trump administration’s false claims about the Arms Trade Treaty, the treaty text explicitly says that each country is responsible for implementing the treaty in accordance with its own constitutional law. The United States already has the most detailed legislation that govern the substance and process of U.S. arms sales. The ATT simply requires the rest of the world to raise their process and standard to something that approaches the United States' level.”
   —Daryl Kimball, executive director, Arms Control Association.

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Security experts weigh in on counterproductive Trump move to withdraw from Arms Trade Treaty

ATT Tackles Diversion, Not Controversy


October 2018
By Jeff Abramson

States-parties to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) are working to improve implementation even as they continue to avoid controversial conversations about specific arms transfers.

Morning commuters and delegates arriving for the fourth conference of states-parties to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), held in Tokyo, were met by campaigners holding “missing” posters illustrating real-life cases of weapons that have been diverted into the illicit trade. (Photo: Control Arms)During opening remarks Aug. 20 at the fourth conference of ATT states-parties in Tokyo, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono identified as “two imminent challenges” the universalization of the treaty and its effective implementation. In doing so, he welcomed the addition of five new treaty members since the 2017 conference of states-parties, bringing the total to 97 once the treaty takes effect in November for Brazil, the most recent to ratify.

The treaty establishes common standards for international trade in conventional weapons and seeks to reduce the illicit arms trade. Measures include required consideration of whether transferred arms would be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law, as well as reporting on national implementation measures and annual arms transfers.

To address implementation issues, a special focus was placed on weapons diversion. During the five-day meeting, treaty members endorsed a three-tier approach to sharing information and welcomed documents on relevant existing instruments and possible measures to prevent and address diversion.

Reporting remains a challenge. The Control Arms coalition’s ATT Monitor found that 73 percent of states-parties had met their obligations to submit an initial report on national implementation measures. As of June, 48 states had submitted separate, annual arms transfer reports out of 89 required to do so for a 54 percent reporting rate, a decline from the previous year’s 65 percent.

States agreed to continue a working group on transparency and reporting and endorsed an outreach strategy to improve compliance with reporting requirements.

As with previous annual conferences, states generally avoided discussion of controversial arms transfers, particularly ones to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. (See ACT, October 2017.) Those countries are leading a coalition fighting the Houthi in Yemen that has been criticized for frequently striking civilians and exacerbating a humanitarian crisis. States that are still supplying arms to the Saudi-led coalition risk going down in history as being complicit in war crimes in Yemen, Amnesty International said in a Sept. 17 statement.

Next year’s conference of states-parties is planned for Geneva on Aug. 26–30 and will be led by Jānis Kārkliņš of Latvia.

A special focus was placed on weapons diversion.

U.S. Signals Shift at UN First Committee

December 2017
By Alicia Sanders-Zakre

When it came to voting at the UN General Assembly First Committee, the Trump administration may have said something by saying nothing.

Ambassador Robert Wood, U.S. permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament, addresses the UN First Committee on November 2 in New York. (Photo credit: United Nations)The U.S. delegation to the First Committee session, which drew extra attention due to the shift in U.S. leadership, abstained from two resolutions that the United States had backed last year, one supporting the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the other welcoming the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

On others, the delegation followed many of the positions taken by the Obama administration. The United States co-sponsored a resolution tying together disarmament and international security introduced by Japan, which it had voted for in the past, and continued to express opposition to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Following the ATT resolution vote, Ambassador Robert Wood, U.S. permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament (CD), said that although the United States “shares the aims” of ATT states-parties, it could not vote in favor because it is undertaking a review of “various” international agreements. The United States did not make a statement after its abstention on the CTBT resolution. Wood said in a Nov. 17 email to Arms Control Today that the United States could not take a position on that resolution due to the ongoing review. The United States was also silent on the CTBT at a September conference on its entry into force. (See ACT, October 2017.)

The United States supported all other treaty resolutions it had voted for in past years, including one calling for a ban on fissile material production and one in support of the Chemical Weapons Convention. It continued to abstain from two other resolutions relating to treaties to which the United States is not party: the Convention on Cluster Munitions and the Mine Ban Treaty.

This year, the United States spoke in support of funding the Biological Weapons Convention, after the resolution related to this treaty was adopted without a vote.

The United States chose to co-sponsor a controversial resolution introduced by Japan because, more than any other, it highlighted “the inseparable link between progress on disarmament and the international security environment,” Wood said in the email.

This resolution was considerably revised from the 2016 version to condition its call for prompt disarmament. The 2017 resolution eliminated several references to the elimination of nuclear arsenals and also scrapped a call to comply with steps toward disarmament agreed at previous nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conferences. Instead, it added several calls on all states to “ease international tension, strengthen trust between states and create the conditions that would allow for” further steps to disarmament.

The new resolution also weakened its support for achieving the entry into force of the CTBT and negotiating a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT). It replaced a previous call for all Annex 2 states to adopt the CTBT with a demand for North Korea first to sign and ratify the treaty, claiming that the treaty cannot enter into force until North Korea ceases its nuclear testing. Instead of urging all states to negotiate an FMCT, as the 2016 resolution did, the 2017 resolution merely acknowledged the “widespread call” for such negotiations.

In a statement after the vote, Dell Higgie, New Zealand’s ambassador for disarmament, expressed “disappointment” with the new text, adding that it “risks fracturing the widespread and long-standing agreement on certain fundamental aspects of the international community’s approach to nuclear disarmament.”

The United States and other nuclear-armed states vocally objected to all explicit or implicit references to the nuclear weapons prohibition treaty in almost a dozen First Committee resolutions. France, the United Kingdom, and the United States called the treaty “dangerous,” Russia described it as a “mistake,” and Pakistan said it was not inclusive.

The United States opposed references to the prohibition treaty because it is “counterproductive, divisive, and only serves to divert attention from actual effective measures,” Wood said in the email, adding the treaty “will not result in the elimination of a single nuclear warhead or improve the security of any state.” Thomas Hajnoczi, Austrian ambassador to the UN Office in Geneva and leading negotiator of the treaty, argued in a Nov. 8 email to Arms Control Today that the division at the First Committee was caused instead by nuclear-weapon states failing to comply with NPT obligations and that efforts to weaken further such commitments would “seriously harm the NPT Review Process.”

Hajnoczi said France, the UK, and the United States objected to mentioning the prohibition treaty for another reason: to prevent it from becoming customary international law. “They perceive as the best way of not being bound by the prohibition norm in the future [is] to persistently object to it whenever it is mentioned,” he said.

United States abstains on two arms control resolutions.

Fight Brewing on Saudi Arms Sales

Yemenis wrap in shrouds the bodies of members of the same family during their funeral on October 8, 2016, a day after they were killed in a reported airstrike by Saudi-led coalition airplanes that hit their house in Bajil. (Photo credit: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)As Donald Trump began his first international trip as president, the State Department notified Congress of its intent to sell more than $500 million in precision-guided munition components and related services to Saudi Arabia. The Obama administration had put the deal on hold in December, in part due to independent reports that Saudi forces have repeatedly struck civilian areas in Yemen, including locations the United States asked be placed off-limits. Legal analysis provided to the American Bar Association and shared with senators May 19 indicated that such a sale should not occur “until Saudi Arabia had ceased violating international law.”

Many of the same members of Congress who opposed a controversial tank deal with Riyadh in September 2016 are now leading efforts to block the sale. (See ACT, October 2016.) At least one vote is expected this month on a resolution against the sale as Congress considers exercising its ability to prohibit the administration from concluding an official agreement during the first 30 days after notification. In co-sponsoring a resolution of disapproval on May 25 with Senators Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said, “Given Saudi Arabia’s past support of terror, poor human rights record, and questionable tactics in its war in Yemen, Congress must carefully consider and thoroughly debate if selling them billions of dollars of arms is in our best national security interest at this time.” The deal promises to be the first test of Trump’s ability to deliver on a broader $110 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia announced May 20. Writing in the Huffington Post on May 20, Murphy called the arms sale “a terrible idea.”—JEFF ABRAMSON

Fight Brewing on Saudi Arms Sales

On travel bans: Instead of refugees coming out, look at weapons going in

This op-ed originally appeared in The Hill. The Trump administration's new executive order on immigration, replacing the currently-blocked “Muslim ban,” will be top-line news. Likely lost in the conversation will be the vast amount of weaponry the United States has supplied in and around the conflict zones from which refugees are fleeing. The United States remains the world’s top major arms dealer at a time when the volume of global arms transfers has reached its highest point since the Cold War , according to a report released Monday by the well-respected Stockholm International Peace...

Obama Acts on Arms Exports

January/February 2017

By Jeff Abramson

While notifying Congress of numerous major arms sales, the Obama administration in its final months took some steps to address controversial arms trade issues by limiting certain weapons transfers to Saudi Arabia and promoting the Arms Trade Treaty. 

The State Department in December notified Congress of more than a dozen potential, major conventional arms deals totaling more than $12 billion under the Foreign Military Sales program. These include $9.5 billion in sales to Middle Eastern countries that include upgrading more than 200 Abrams tanks for Kuwait, providing more than three dozen Apache attack helicopters to the United Arab Emirates, and supplying 48 Chinook cargo helicopters to Saudi Arabia. 

Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky., left) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn., right) discuss legislation to prevent some weapons sales to Saudi Arabia at an event moderated by Center for the National Interest Vice Chairman Dov Zakheim on September 19, 2016, in Washington. (Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)Although the late-term notifications of the prospective sales did not draw significant congressional opposition, sales to Saudi Arabia have been controversial given the conduct of the Saudi-led military coalition in its war in Yemen, during which hospitals and civilian areas have been bombed. In September, more than a quarter of U.S. senators voted to block a $1 billion tank deal for Riyadh. Although their efforts were unsuccessful, such strong opposition is rarely seen because sales are vetted by Senate leaders prior to public notification. (See ACT, October 2016.)

Concerns over Saudi bombings led the Obama administration to halt sales of precision-guided air-dropped weapons to the kingdom, Reuters reported on Dec. 13. The administration did not suspend other sales or the refueling of coalition warplanes. In May, the administration suspended transfers of cluster munitions to Riyadh. (See ACT, October 2016.)

U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), and Mike Lee (R-Utah), who had opposed the tank sales, welcomed the other restrictions in statements Dec. 15. Paul said he was pleased to see the administration “respond to growing pressure over its arms sales to Saudi Arabia.” Murphy said it was “the right call” and added that “if we are concerned about U.S.-supplied bombs being dropped on civilians, we should also stop refueling the Saudi planes that are flying those missions.”

Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally, was the developing world’s top arms purchaser during 2008-2015, with agreements totaling more than $93 billion, according to an annual Congressional Research Service report released in December. The United States remained the world’s top arms seller, accounting for more than half of all global sales agreements in 2015 and nearly two-thirds of agreements with Saudi Arabia over the 2008-2015 period covered by the report.

Also in December, the White House transmitted the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) to the Senate with a message from President Barack Obama recommending “that it give its advice and consent to ratification.” On the same day, Dec. 9, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) reiterated his opposition, alluding to “an array of concerns with Second Amendment rights” and saying “it will remain dead in the water.” 

Thomas Countryman, acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, wrote in an official blog post Dec. 20 that the ATT has nothing to do with restricting U.S. gun rights, an issue raised by opponents that has made the ATT a nonstarter for many Republican lawmakers and some Democrats. The accord “deals strictly with the international transfer of conventional arms,” said Countryman, who led the U.S. delegation that negotiated the treaty. He reiterated the Obama administration’s contention that the treaty “is fully consistent with the domestic rights of U.S. citizens, including those guaranteed under the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” 

The treaty, which the United States signed in September 2013, now has 91 states-parties, including 25 of NATO’s 28 members. It requires the establishment of national export control systems, as well as assessments of whether exported arms would “contribute to or undermine peace and security” or could be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law, acts of terrorism, or transnational organized crime. 

Although official treaty meetings have generally skirted discussion of arms sales to Saudi Arabia despite civil society arguments that they violate the treaty, a U.K. legal case to be heard in February could have broader implications on treaty implementation if the court finds the sales illegal. (See ACT, October 2016.)

Saudi sales limited, Arms Trade Treaty sent to Senate.

Much more needed from top presidential candidates on arms issues

This guest post is written by Jeff Abramson, organizer for the Forum on Arms Trade and nonresident senior fellow with the Arms Control Association. The assessments here are not endorsed by other experts, the Arms Control Association, the Forum on the Arms Trade, nor the candidates. The next U.S. president will need to make many decisions that are fundamental to how the United States provides weapons and training to other parties, supports (or disregards) agreements to responsibly trade arms and in some cases ban those the international community has deemed unacceptable , as well as how it...

Proposed Arms Sale to Saudi Arabia Should be Withdrawn; Future Transfers Put on Hold

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Volume 8, Issue 4, September 6, 2016

During the middle of the summer legislative recess, the Barack Obama administration notified the U.S. Congress Aug. 8 of the proposed sale of $1.15 billion in tanks and other equipment to Saudi Arabia, starting a 30-day clock for House and Senate review.

Within a week, news broke of yet more civilian deaths at the hands of the Saudi-led coalition operating in Yemen, including a strike on a hospital operated by Doctors Without Borders (MSF); that strike subsequently led the organization to withdraw its staff from multiple facilities in the country. Last week, airstrikes reportedly targeted an imam’s family, killing civilians, including children.

U.S. Army M1A2 Abrams with TUSK equipment (Photo: Wikipedia)In response to the hospital bombing, State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said “U.S. officials have regularly engaged with Saudi officials… as well as other coalition members on the importance of mitigating harm. As part of this, we’ve also encouraged them to do their utmost to avoid harm to entities protected by international law such as this hospital.”

If the administration is sincere in its desire to hold Saudi Arabia accountable and leverage such sales in ways that encourage it to change its behavior, President Barack Obama should withdraw this sale and suspend delivery on those agreed earlier, rather than continue to reward Riyadh for its actions. Such steps would reinforce the importance of human rights and international law in U.S. arms transfer decisions.

Congress on Alert

Last week, a bipartisan group of 64 House representatives asked the president to withdraw the Saudi arms sale notification, arguing in part that they had not been given sufficient time to exercise their review responsibilities. That is a wise request, as Congress, which resumes work on Sept. 6, will have a small window of time to consider and vote on legislation in both the House and Senate to block the sale before the 30-day period expires.

After the initial review period, the president can proceed with the arms transfers. Nonetheless, Congress can still act up until delivery, which often occurs years later. If the president fails to withdraw the sale, then Congress should pursue a blocking path.

The Arms Export Control Act was amended in 2014 to allow Congress to request notification at least 30 days before delivery. Such pre-delivery notifications, however, require a joint request of the chair and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) or House Foreign Affairs Committee. SFRC Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) used these provisions for the first time late last year over a separate arms transfer to Saudi Arabia. Once again, they should exercise their authority to receive pre-delivery notification for this deal.

A Better Path

The problems with the proposed arms sales, however, go far beyond the limited time for congressional review. Arming Saudi Arabia only encourages irresponsible behavior and the misuse of U.S.-supplied weapons, despite U.S. commitments to take into account such abuse in arms transfers.

The United States has long been a top weapons supplier to Saudi Arabia. The country is the leading developing world arms purchaser (according to a recent Congressional Research Service report), and has increased its arms imports by 275 percent from 2011 to 2015 relative to the previous five years (according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute-SIPRI). In addition to the August notification, the administration has recently proposed providing support services, Phalanx weapons systems (February 2016), and more than $1 billion in guided bombs and air-to-ground munitions (November 2015).

The Saudi-led coalition’s actions (as well as those of the Houthi) have resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and contributed to massive suffering and displacement. Last week, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN high commissioner for human rights, called for independent investigations into abuses in Yemen. In March, he said: “It would appear to be the case that the distinction between legitimate military targets and civilian ones—which are protected under international law—is at best woefully inadequate … . And at worst, we are possibly looking at the commission of international crimes by members of the [Saudi-led] Coalition."

Internationally, Saudi actions have been widely condemned and are leading to growing censure of arms sales to Riyadh.

On Feb. 25, the European Parliament approved a nonbinding resolution finding that European supplies of weapons to Saudi Arabia violate EU arms transfer rules and seeking an embargo on such transfers. Most European countries have now taken steps to tighten arms transfers and licenses to Saudi Arabia, according to a report issued last month by the ATT Monitor.

In revising U.S. conventional arms transfer policy in January 2014, the president included the goal “Ensuring that arms transfers do not contribute to human rights violations or violations of international humanitarian law.”

The United States is also a signatory to the landmark Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which requires consideration of whether transferred arms would be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law. Although treaty members last month were unprepared to tackle transfers to Saudi Arabia, the United States should set a better example.

Withdrawing the recently proposed sale to Saudi Arabia and holding delivery on those in the works is an opportunity to signal to Riyadh that it must act responsibly and ensure that future U.S. arms transfers are not used to target civilians and violate human rights.

—JEFF ABRAMSON, non-resident senior fellow with the Arms Control Association, and program manager of Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines-Cluster Munition Coalition 

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If the U.S. is sincere in its desire to hold Saudi Arabia accountable, it can and should existing U.S. law and its signatory status on the Arms Trade Treaty to encourage better behavior.

No Further Excuses: Report from Arms Trade Treaty Conference

Rachel Stohl, board member of the Arms Control Association, wonders why more could not have been accomplished at the Second Conference of States-Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty.

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