Arms Trade Treaty agreed by overwhelming majority of states
An international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) to regulate the global trade in conventional arms has been adopted by an overwhelming majority of states at the UN General Assembly by vote. This marks a major victory for civil society organisations that have been calling for global controls on the arms trade and states that have been leading the way.
The ATT has come about after ten years of campaigning by the Controls Arms campaign, six years of diplomatic negotiations, and most recently two weeks of treaty negotiations that resulted in a draft treaty text but was unable to adopt the treaty after just three UN Member States blocked it.
Achieving this treaty is a remarkable feat, both because of its provisions and also how it was brought into being.
The core provision at the heart of the Arms Trade Treaty is a prohibition on the transfer of conventional arms where there is a risk that they will be used to commit genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, or if it will violate the Geneva Conventions. The ATT will make governments accountable and legally responsible for every arms export they make, from battle tanks and attack helicopters, to missiles and small arms. As such, the ATT should contribute in providing greater protection for civilians and reduce the number of victims as a result of the unregulated arms trade.
States have already demonstrated overwhelming support for the treaty. 154 states, representing 80% of UN Member States, voted to adopt the ATT, greatly surpassing the requirement of a majority vote of 97 states. The states that adopted the treaty include some of the largest arms producers and exporters, most notably the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom and France.
Although some major arms exporters such as China and Russia chose to abstain from voting for or against the adoption of the treaty, there is still time for them to decide to join the treaty. The fact that a common international legal standard to regulate arms transfers now exists will certainly influence to which states these countries export arms, even if they do not join the ATT from the outset. Russia has consistently said that its arms exports to Syria have not violated international law but it will become harder to maintain such a position in the future. Very few states are comfortable as being seen as pariahs to international law.
The resounding result of the vote is also a very positive indication that most states will go on to sign the treaty when it opens for signature, and will proceed to ratify it, helping to quickly reach the threshold of fifty ratifications needed to bring the treaty into force. Civil society will also be making sure that states follow through on these vital next steps.
The process towards the adoption of the ATT illustrated the ineffectiveness of consensus rules where any one state is given an effective veto. Under that approach, three states (Iran, North Korea and Syria), a very small minority and all with abysmal human rights records, were able to block the adoption of the treaty. The obviously farcical nature of that procedural impasse, probably helped to mobilise support for the ATT when it was then taken to the UN General Assembly, increasing the number of states that co-sponsored the UNGA resolution and that voted in favour of adopting the treaty.