The U.N. Wants to Regulate the Arms Trade—Here’s Why It Won’t Work
Biggest weapons dealers won’t sign the treaty, and it barely regulates ammo
It’s quite hard to believe, but until a few weeks ago, no international treaty existed to regulate the trade of conventional weapons. We’re talking about everyday battlefield hardware such as tanks, artillery and firearms.
But on Dec. 24, the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty became official. This came two years after the U.N. General Assembly first accepted it, and three months after the treaty gained 50 required ratifications.
Human rights and activists groups hailed the ATT as a milestone achievement. If rigorously applied, its requirements could greatly reduce human suffering.
But that’s a big if. Despite the treaty entering into force, it contains some huge loopholes and gaps that makes it unlikely to stop any wars.
The ATT covers eight specific categories of conventional weapons, ranging from tanks, aircraft and warships—to small arms, such as handheld rifles and machine guns. And that’s not all.
In a major development, the treaty mandates that participating states establish control systems for ammunition. States have to “regulate the export of ammunition/munitions fired, launched or delivered by conventional arms.”
Further, signatory states must report their arms exports to the U.N., and must not export weapons if they have “knowledge at the time of the authorization” that a recipient will use those weapons to carry out genocide, commit crimes against humanity or launch attacks against civilians.
“It is pretty fast for a major international treaty like this to have entered into force so quickly,” Anna Macdonald, director for the non-profit group Control Arms, told War Is Boring. “For us, the most important way is by establishing a new standard in international law, by creating a new international norm, by which it becomes politically difficult to deviate.”
That the treaty includes ammunition is a big deal. Armed groups and nations involved in wars can rarely produce large quantities of arms and ammo on their own. Instead, they rely on imports.
This is especially true when it comes to bullets, Macdonald said.
“If you go to some of the worst conflicts in Africa, you find old weapons, some of which can be decades old,” she said. “But the ammunition they are using is brand new.”
But unfortunately, world peace isn’t upon us just yet.
For one, the treaty only binds those states that have signed and ratified it. It’s completely voluntary, and it’s unlikely most of the world’s largest arms exports will sign up anytime soon.
Russia, China, Iran, Sudan and Egypt—just to name a few countries whose weapons have shown up in recent conflicts—haven’t joined the treaty or announced any plans to do so.
Pres. Barack Obama signed the ATT on behalf of the United States, but it still needs a two-thirds majority in the Senate for the treaty to apply. The U.S. is by far the world’s largest arms exporter.
The treaty also includes a range of loopholes. “The treaty doesn’t cover such things as technology transfer,” Max Mutschler, an analyst at the Bonn International Center for Conversion, told War Is Boring.
This is unfortunate, because arms deals today often include more than physical hardware. In many cases, the deals come with the knowledge and rights to the intellectual property, which allows a recipient to produce the weapons locally.
Mutschler agrees that including ammunition is a huge success for arms control advocates, but neither ammunition—nor weapons parts and components—will be part of the reporting requirements.
That’s an important distinction. You can’t supply weapons to a genocidal army, but how would the U.N. ever prove it?
Several states, including the U.S., have lobbied against stringent ammunition controls, arguing that bullets are too difficult to track. There’s also considerable domestic pressure against restrictions coming from American ammo manufacturers.
“The definition of arms transfers—that the treaty is based on—also doesn’t explicitly include equipment on loan, leasing deals and gifts,” Mutschler, who has followed the treaty negotiations closely, said. “That is a potential loophole.”
In addition, for the export bans to go into effect, states need to find an “overriding risk” that the recipient will commit atrocities. How the U.N. will interpret “overriding risk”—and many other aspects of the treaty—will take years of negotiations and technical discussions, according to Mutschler.
To make matters worse, the treaty doesn’t include any sanctioning mechanisms.
If a state infringes on the reporting requirements of the ATT, the international community can only resort to public shaming and finger-wagging. In terms of consequences, there’s zilch — for everyone except the victims of those weapons.
For these reasons, Mutschler doesn’t think that the ATT will replace the need for other instruments—such as U.N. arms embargoes—any time soon.
“An embargo by the Security Council under Chapter 7 [of the U.N. Charter] is obligatory, even for states that were not involved in the Security Council decision.”
Still, Mutschler said that the ATT “is recommendable, because it is the first time that we established rules for the international arms trade on the international level.”
Macdonald agrees, and argues that some effects of the ATT will happen sooner, rather than later.
“The arms trade is by its very nature a very globalized trade,” Macdonald said. “Countries are very interdependent on each other for this trade. So it will become quite hard for countries which remain completely outside the treaty regime to continue business as normal, because so many countries will be inside the treaty and hopefully applying its provisions rigorously.”
One-hundred thirty states have so far signed the treaty, and 63 have ratified it. You can view a map of all the signatories here.
Both Mutschler and Macdonald say that the coming months and years will be key to establish the ATT’s long-term legacy. “Getting it agreed, getting it into force was the first step,” Macdonald. “Now the real work—if you like—the big job of implementing it effectively is beginning.”
Mutschler added that civil society organizations such as Control Arms were instrumental in getting the ATT negotiated and approved by the U.N. General Assembly.
The treaty’s effective implementation will largely “depend on how forcefully civil society continues to engage with this issue.”