Arms Trade Treaty negotiations stalled, but campaign achieves gains in global standard against arms transfers to human rights abusers

By Thomas Nash and Dr. Matthew Bolton

  • The Diplomatic Conference on an Arms Trade Treaty came very close today to adopting the first legally binding instrument to control the international trade in arms, but a handful of countries cynically prevented this, taking advantage of a flawed consensus process.

  • However, the civil society campaign and progressive states have achieved major gains in the acceptance of a global standard to prevent arms transfers to human rights abusers and the Arms Trade Treaty remains in reach this year.


“We are disappointed, but we are not discouraged.” This was the message of 90 likeminded states as the Diplomatic Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty came to an inconclusive end Friday. As representatives of Article 36 who have been closely observing the conference, we agree. The missed opportunity to establish a strong and robust regulatory global regime for the trade in conventional weapons, currently subject to fewer restrictions than the international market in bananas, feels like an anticlimax, but it should only be a temporary setback as the process continues – perhaps even in a more positive format.

Over the past decade, a norm has been emerging that arms transfers must be banned where International Humanitarian and Human Rights Law is under threat. On the final day of a month long conference, States got very close to adopting a treaty that would have advanced this norm. We are very disappointed that a small number of countries prevented adoption of this treaty at the last minute. We have serious doubts that multilateral processes based on consensus and the lowest common denominator are capable of delivering adequate results to humanitarian problems. Unfortunately this meeting has only reinforced these doubts.

But we are not discouraged. If there is one thing that has been gained from the Arms Trade Treaty negotiations this month, it is the clarity that there is an unflinching determination by the majority of the world’s nations to ban the transfer of weapons when there’s a substantial risk of human rights and humanitarian law violations. Even without adoption of the treaty, this norm has been advanced by these negotiations over the past month.

We believe that this advancement of the standards of acceptable conduct is important in and of itself, but it also provides what the UK called the ‘building blocks’ for the eventual Arms Trade Treaty. That treaty can get even stronger than the draft that was so close to adoption today. The partnership that exists between civil society, states and international organizations will continue to work together to get this treaty adopted in 2012, as has always been the objective.

When you allow a small group of countries to determine an outcome based on the lowest common denominator, it becomes very difficult to arrive at an adequate response to a problem. The cynical maneuvering and delaying tactics of the US, Russia and a handful of authoritarian states illustrated this very clearly at the end of the Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty.

But we know that genuinely effective results are possible in multilateral affairs. We’ve seen this, for example, with the bans on landmines and cluster bombs, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court, none of which were achieved through processes based on consensus. The purpose of international law should not be, and has not traditionally been, to merely codify the often unacceptable practice of states. Rather it should set out the highest possible standards to which all states should aspire. It is vital that we recall this principle as we tackle the many challenges before us in global politics, not least as we take on the urgent task of negotiating a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

Thus while we cannot celebrate tonight the banking of a new treaty, we can and will celebrate the banking of an important emerging norm to ban transfers of weapons to those who would abuse human rights, violate international humanitarian law and undermine development.

This effort is by no means over. We believe a successful regulation of the arms trade is still within reach and that this regulation will save lives and make a real difference on the ground. A handful of states, the US, Russia, and some others, may have stalled the Arms Trade Treaty process today, but they have not defeated it. It will happen. We will continue to support the global movement to control the arms trade and to deal with the devastating impact of armed violence that it fuels.


Prior to co-founding and becoming Director of Article 36, Thomas Nash successfully coordinated the civil society campaign for a ban on cluster bombs, which culminated in the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions. Article 36 is involved in a number of civil society efforts to establish stronger humanitarian norms in relation to weapons and the protection of civilians. Dr. Matthew Bolton is assistant professor of political science at Pace University New York City. He has over a decade’s experience as an aid worker and researcher in places severely affected by armed violence, including in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, Uganda and South Sudan. He has published widely on the humanitarian dimensions of conventional weapons like landmines, cluster munitions and small arms.



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