World’s first arms trade treaty is historic but leaves much to do


Gun mad: a National Shooting Sports Foundation trade show in Las Vegas.


Ethan Miller

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Rare are the days when we can truly say the world is becoming a better place. At the United Nations General Assembly on April 2, 2013, history was made when 155 states voted in favor of an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), opening the opportunity countries begin signing on June 3.

Many states play an important role in manufacturing and selling conventional weapons; the first in line being the United States, Great Britain, France, China and Russia, the permanent five of the Security Council. These are the same states that vote on a regular basis on UN peacekeeping mandates, arms embargoes and the most critical conflicts under way.

While respecting national sovereignty on national security, the treaty is a major step toward creating international standards for the purpose of reducing human suffering. Equally important is that it creates a set of requirements for any arms transfer, meaning that a transfer must not take place if it has the potential of contributing to or undermining peace and security, and violating international humanitarian law and human rights.

Since month-long negotiations failed in July 2012, after the US blocked the consensus necessary for the treaty’s adoption, the draft text of the Arms Trade Treaty underwent substantial transformations during the nine days that had been allocated to the final ATT Conference.

When the conference began, ammunition as well as parts and components were not in the scope of the treaty. They now have separate articles in the treaty, despite being outside its scope. Diversion also has an article of its own, stressing ways in which states should prevent weapons from ending up in the wrong hands.

In addition, the amendments clause, set to be by consensus in the July 2012 draft, is now conditioned by a three-quarter majority of states party to the treaty and present when considering amendments. Although the first amendments will not be introduced until the treaty is in force for six years, this mechanism makes real changes to the treaty a tangible possibility.

Map: At the UN General Assembly on April 2, 155 states voted yes, 22 abstained and 3 opposed the adoption of an Arms Trade Treaty. Courtesy of

Such changes to the text would not have been possible without the strong leadership of states such as Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, New Zealand, Norway, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and many others. The persuasive nature of their leadership was inspiring and moving as illustrated in the instigation of numerous common statements and demands for the highest possible international standards.

Behind those states stood Control Arms — an international coalition of Civil Society Organizations, working tirelessly and passionately in the months leading up to and throughout the conference. Control Arms met with states, offering legal advice on the draft changes as well as pushing for the treaty to be as comprehensive, binding and strong as possible. Such efforts were not made in vain as the adopted treaty now contains many binding elements improving the standards to control an arms transfer.

Anna MacDonald, head of Arms Control for Oxfam said, “The agreement of the Arms Trade Treaty sends a clear message to arms dealers who supply war lords and dictators that their time is up. They will no longer be able to operate and arm themselves with impunity. The world will be watching and will hold them accountable.”

Years of hard work have finally come to fruition since the General Assembly resolution to open a Conference of Parties to negotiate a treaty was first introduced seven years ago. But as the Mexican delegate Roberto Dondisch said in a statement on behalf of 96 states when the treaty was adopted April 2, “this is just the beginning.”

Much work remains to be done, with calls for a more comprehensive scope as well as the interpretation of transfers to include gifts, loans and leases. In this respect, New Zealand explained that it would interpret the term “overriding risk” of weapons transfers potentially being used to commit human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law as a “substantial risk,” setting a lower risk assessment threshold.

A recent impact is France’s backtracking in early April from a plan to arm the Syrian rebels. French President Francois Hollande announced on April 2 that he did not want to transfer weapons to the Syrian opposition with no certainty that they couldn’t fall in the hands of jihadists.

The timing of this official position is no coincidence, especially since the same risk existed prior to the initial announcement of arming the rebels. Divisions within the Syrian coalition have contributed to France’s doubts, but it is also reasonable to conclude that the treaty had influenced how France is assessing its role in the Syrian conflict. It came clear that the French could not vote for a treaty regulating the arms trade and transfer weapons to non-state actors during the same week.

The treaty will be open for parties to sign in June, with a minimum of 50 states needed to ratify for the treaty to enter into force 90 days later. National implementation systems will be instrumental for the treaty to have a real impact, hopefully providing a basis for common domestic control systems with the coordinated assistance of the ATT Secretariat to be set up following the treaty’s coming of age.

Priorities to improve the text include, for example, widening the scope so it encompasses all conventional weapons including grenades, landmines and drones. Another area for improvement will be the application of provisions such as reporting on import, transit and transhipment, brokering and diversion to parts and components as well as ammunition, which currently is not the case.

A great deal has been accomplished by the world community and, yet, there is without a doubt a long road of implementing the treaty stretching ahead for it to have long-lasting and visible impacts on people’s lives.

Adeline Guerra, a journalist in New Zealand, writes about international security issues, conflict and foreign policy. She worked for Oxfam as part of the Control Arms Coalition at the Arms Trade Treaty United Nations Diplomatic Conference in New York in March. For more, go to or follow her on Twitter @AdelineGuerra.