EastWest Direct: The UN Arms Trade Treaty

Commentary | April 11, 2013

EWI’s Alex Schulman spoke with Davis Fellow for WMD Kevin Ching on the impact of the UN Arms Trade Treaty, which was passed in the UN General Assembly on April 2.

Can you outline the basic tenets of the Arms Trade Treaty and discuss what it aims to accomplish?

Prior to the arms trade treaty, there was no real global set of rules governing the trade, export or transport of conventional weapons. The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) sets up standards for the cross-border transfer of eight categories of weapons; tanks, combat vehicles, all the way down to small and light weapons. It seeks to curb the irresponsible and illegal trade of weapons and prevent their sale into illicit markets.

Prior to authorizing any sale of weapons, the exporter has to assess whether the transfer is going to be used to facilitate or commit genocide, crimes against humanity, or other international humanitarian laws. If there is a known risk, they are prohibited from making that sale or transfer. Countries will then be held accountable through annual reporting requirements on arms transfers.

What are some objections to the treaty? Can you summarize the treaty’s main limitations?

The three countries that objected to the treaty are North Korea, Iran and Syria. I should say that the objections that these three countries held were echoed by a number of other countries. North Korea didn’t like the idea that exporters would be judging the humanitarian rights record of the importing countries. Iran, for their part, said that, “they didn’t approve of the transfer of conventional arms to foreign occupiers,” which is a thinly veiled reference to Israel. Syria objected because they didn’t like the fact that transfers or exports to armed groups or non-state actors (e.g. rebels in Syria) were not covered.

The treaty is also criticized for its relatively narrow scope; it doesn’t cover gifts and loans, which is a significant loophole. Furthermore, there’s no enforcement mechanism – that’s left to states to resolve.

Though the United States, the world's biggest arms exporter, voted yes on Tuesday, what are the chances of the U.S. ratifying the treaty? There’s stiff resistance from the National Rifle Association and conservatives in the Senate, where it needs a two-thirds majority to win ratification.

The focus of this treaty is entirely on the international trade and transfer of conventional weapons. The preamble of the ATT explicitly acknowledges that states retain their sovereignty and their authority to regulate the internal transfer and internal domestic possession of conventional weapons. It no way infringes upon private ownership. In fact, the American Bar Association was commissioned to do an analysis of the ATT and they found that the treaty is entirely consistent with the Second Amendment.

In the short term, there will definitely be opposition to the treaty in the U.S. The New York Times reports that over 50 senators are against it. So I don’t think this is going to happen anytime soon. But in the long term, the position of the NRA and other treaty opponents will likely be undermined. The current gun safety debate in the U.S., triggered by the Newtown massacre, weakens their position. And considering the fact that the only three countries that currently oppose the treaty are Iran, Syria and the North Korea, the NRA’s alignment with that trio certainly does not put them in a good light.

Why have Russia and China, two leading sellers of conventional weapons, abstained from voting? What does this mean for export control?

In short, China was opposed to the fact that the treaty was approved in a setting that did not allow every state veto power. It was previously negotiated at the UN Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty, but consensus was blocked by opposition from Iran, North Korea and Syria. The ATT was then moved to the UN General Assembly, which requires only a simple majority to adopt a treaty. Wary of establishing a precedent, China argued that this move weakened the treaty.

Russia, for its part, felt that a number of the definitions, such as the term “genocide,” were not sufficiently clarified. Should these definitions be more appropriately defined, I believe it would be more acceptable to the Russians.

Russia is the second largest exporter of conventional weapons and China the fifth largest. The fact that these two countries did not approve the treaty outright obviously does not bode well for its implementation.

Anna MacDonald, the head of arms control for Oxfam International, has said, “This treaty won’t solve the problems of Syria overnight…but it will help to prevent future Syrias.” How might this treaty affect the current situation in Syria, if it were to be ratified today, and how might it prevent armed violence in the future?

Even by the most optimistic estimates, we are still one to two years away from this treaty’s ratification and entry into force. If it did enter into force today, it would make Russian sales of weapons to Syria much more difficult. Eventually, post-ratification, this will develop into an international norm. This is what happened with nuclear weapons, biological weapons and chemical weapons. It takes years, but eventually, it will develop into a norm, and this will raise political costs for countries that contravene the norm.

Another thing that the treaty will do is publicly name violators, ostracizing these countries within the international community. In terms of preventing future Syrias, the treaty will fill gaps that currently exist in the global arms trade. Only about 50 countries currently have related laws on the books, so once this treaty is approved with broad support from the international community, it will serve to diminish the now flourishing illicit market for these weapons.

What challenges will stand in the way of effective enforcement of this treaty?

It remains to be seen if countries are willing to subordinate their economic interests to fulfill their obligations under this treaty, so it’s entirely likely that countries will enact laws on the books without enforcing them. We saw this with China’s national export control system in the 90s and well into 2000s; they had laws on the books but they lacked the will or the capacity to enforce many of them. As a result, Chinese missile and nuclear weapons technology found its way into illicit markets.

It’s going to take some significant work on the part of the international community to push countries to actively enforce this treaty and fill these gaps. The ATT is a good start, but it’s a framework for international export control systems; more work needs to be done to build a robust regime that prevents these guns and weapons from falling into the wrong hands.

EastWest Direct is an ongoing series of interviews with EWI experts tied to breaking news stories.