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The Arms Trade Treaty: A Christmas Present to the World

24 Dec 2014
Siobhan Neyland
Australia's then Assistant Minister of Defence Mike Kelly signs the Arms Trade Treaty. Source: Flickr Creative Commons (Control Arms)

On this day, 24 December, as a Christmas present to the world, the International Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) comes into effect or ‘enters into force’, exactly 90 days after the minimum 50 states ratified the Treaty. This is an historic agreement, the potential positive impact of which should not be underestimated.

What is the Arms Trade Treaty?

The ATT is a new international treaty designed to set standards for all cross-border transfers of conventional weapons ranging from small firearms to tanks and attack helicopters. It requires signatory countries to review cross-border contracts to ensure that weapons will not be used in human rights abuses or organised crime, and that weapons exported do not end up in the ‘wrong hands’. It constitutes the first set of robust rules for the regulation of the international trade in small arms.

Why do we need the ATT?

The ATT assumes that the illicit trade in small arms is a significant global issue requiring action by the UN. A recent study conducted by Routledge found that in conflict-affected regions of the world, the theft, loss or corrupt sale of official holdings is in fact a bigger source of ‘weapons concern’ than illicit trafficking across borders. The ATT therefore has the potential to drastically reduce the supply of weapons to rogue actors and illegal non-state organisations.

What does the treaty aim to achieve and how?

The object of the ATT, according to the Treaty text, is to ‘establish the highest possible international standards for regulating or improving the regulation of the international trade in conventional arms’ for the purpose of ‘reducing human suffering’ and promoting peace and non-violence.

The Treaty sets up a global reporting system of international arms sales, to prevent the flow of weapons to rogue states and terrorist groups. It requires that states, before authorising transfers of weapons, assess the risk that the weapons will:

  • Be used in serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law
  • Facilitate terrorist attacks, violent crime or orgnanised crime
  • Be diverted from their stated recipient
  • Seriously impair poverty reduction and socio-economic development.

In ratifying the Treaty, states are obliged to establish and implement their own national control system through which they can prove they are meeting their obligations under the agreement.

What role did Australia play in the ATT’s development?

Australia was one of the seven original co-authors of UN Resolution 61/89 ‘Towards an Arms Trade Treaty’ which was adopted in 2006 by the UN General Assembly. Since then, Australia has been pushing for better regulation of the international arms trade – in September 2013 Australia (as acting Security Council President) initiated and led negotiations on the first ever UN Security Resolution on small arms and light weapons, Resolution 2117.

Australia also helped to establish the UN Trust Facility for Supporting Cooperation on Arms Regulation (UNSCAR) which will fund projects aimed at supporting the implementation of the ATT. But most importantly, Australia used its Security Council presidency to make the Treaty a priority and emphasis its importance in promoting global peace and security. Australia ratified the treaty on 3 June 2014.

Why are some states and stakeholders opposed?

Many states are worried that the Treaty could compromise their rights to sovereign control and lawmaking, and notably, pro-gun civil society groups in the United States are opposed to the ratification of the treaty. The most vocal opposition comes from the National Rifle Association which claims that the regulation involved with the implementation of the ATT in the United States constitutes an ‘assault on our [Americans’] fundamental freedom’ and an attack on ‘the constitutional rights and liberties of every law-abiding American’.

However, the ATT clearly states that it will not interfere with domestic arms commerce or the right to bear arms in member states, and under the US Constitution, no international law can override provisions in the Bill of Rights, such as the 2nd Amendment.

Will it make a difference?

More and more countries are signing and ratifying the ATT. There is momentum and pressure building for countries to join in the agreement and there are many resources available to ensure that the Treaty is implemented effectively and comprehensively and to track its status and progress.

However, the world is still waiting on powerful arms-dealing countries such the US to ratify the agreement, which might prove difficult with the current domestic opposition and fears of Second Amendment rights violations. China, another big player in the arms trade, has yet to sign.

But, in the spirit of the season, we should feel hopeful that the momentum building around the treaty will sway the remaining countries into action. There is much to be optimistic about, and at this point the activation of this accord seems like a pretty good Christmas present.