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The Global Arms Trade Treaty: The Critical First Step in a Marathon

In the midst of escalating tensions in the Middle East and Korean peninsula, the United Nations approved a landmark treaty that has incredible potential to affect lives and national security in nearly every country around the world. After seven years of negotiations, the 67th General Assembly adopted the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) contained in resolution A/67/L.58 on April 2, 2013 by an overwhelming majority of 154 votes to 3, with 23 countries abstaining. The Arms Trade Treaty (A/CONF.217/2013/L.3) hopes to decrease armed conflict and violence by prohibiting the export of arms that might be used to undermine peace, facilitate terrorism or transnational organized crime, or violate international human rights or humanitarian law. To effectuate these goals, ATT Article 7 requires an exporting country to objectively assess the potential that the exported arms would be used in the categories listed above. The ATT further requires that parties take measures to prevent the diversion of conventional arms into these illegal uses through Article 11. While the ATT is a critical and long overdue first step is creating a legal framework and international standard to control the global arms trade, it is unlikely to provide any beneficial impact to our country’s security or the millions who suffer from armed violence without additional multilateral steps and ratification by the world’s major and rogue arms exporters.

As any news ticker will reveal, conventional arms are the mainstay of any country’s national defense, and unfortunately the tools of any conflict, uprising, atrocity, or drug and crime organization. Because of this, arms trade is big business, worth approximately $70 billion annually. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the top three exporters in 2012 were the United States, Russia, and China at $8.8, $8, and $1.8 billion in trade respectively. In a comprehensive attempt to regulate this trade, Article 2 of the ATT covers nearly all conventional arms: battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-caliber artillery, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and missile launchers, small arms, and light weapons. Additionally, Article 3 requires that countries create a national control system to regulate the export of ammunition for conventional arms under the same guidelines, and Article 4 requires the same guidelines for parts and components used to assemble conventional arms. Although the Bush administration did not support the ATT, preferring national controls over an international treaty, U.S. policy changed in 2009 under the Obama administration and now the U.S. appears to fully support the ATT (including a vote in favor on April 2). However, Russia and China are two notable and powerful abstentions from last week’s vote, and their ratification of the ATT seems unlikely in its current form.

The three countries who voted against the resolution were the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), Iran, and Syria; in fact, the resolution went to a vote because these three countries, already under seemingly ineffective arms sanctions, blocked its adoption through consensus. As the delegate from France noted during general statements, the multilateral consensus that many abstaining countries wished for was essentially achieved with the exception of countries that were already in violation of international law. Needless to say, ratification of the ATT by these three countries should not be expected.

In voting against the resolution, North Korea and Iran argued that ATT Article 7 afforded an “imbalance” of power that favored exporting countries, fearing that the requirement to assess an importer’s human rights record would be used for political abuse and subjective discretionary judgment. Syria and North Korea objected strongly to the ATT’s lack of language banning weapons trade to unauthorized, non-State actors – a concern shared by Russia as well as many other countries on all sides of the debate. Iran and Syria, along with several abstaining countries, voiced apprehension that arms transfer to foreign occupiers or aggressors had not been prohibited. Lastly, China felt that not all of its concerns were met in the ATT draft, and regretted that an international treaty such as the ATT was not adopted by consensus – the latter expressed by other abstaining countries.

Without ratification by Russia and China, little practical effect will be seen on the flow of arms to countries which currently maintain a position on our government’s radar, notably Iran, North Korea, and Syria. Further, even with the full support of Russia and China, the trade of conventional and unconventional weapons amongst Iran, North Korea, and Syria appears to continue despite current sanctions and will undoubtedly continue regardless of the ATT. Until the ATT becomes ratified and enjoys implementation by a critical mass of countries around the world, arms trade will likely continue being business as usual in near future. The ATT does not remove weapons already owned, and there are far too many weapons presently in the hands of actors whom many countries, including the United States, would prefer otherwise. Nonetheless, the ATT is an essential step in the right direction. With time and increased international support, supplemental measures and amendments should build momentum towards achieving the goals set forth in the foundation of this historical treaty; ultimately improving the lives of individuals subjected to violence around the world and enhancing the security of countless nations including our own.


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