Thursday, April 4, 2013

UN Arms Trade Treaty Overwhelmingly Approved

In the summer of 2012, I wrote an article on the failure of the international community to reach a voting consensus on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), despite the almost 10-year lobbying effort to get the treaty signed into international law. Various problems with the treaty came to the fore back in July 2012, mainly that the U.S. and Russia claimed they didn't know how the treaty would affect their domestic laws. It was a frustrating end to what could have been a monumental addition to international law; a treaty designed to regulate trade worth $70 billion annually. Good news came roughly 9 months later: two days ago, the Arms Trade Treaty was brought to a majority vote and received overwhelming international backing. Only three countries in the UN General Assembly voted against it (North Korea, Iran and Syria) while great power arms manufacturers China and Russia abstained. Despite a few small issues, the treaty may very well prove to be a guiding law in future policy discussions, especially concerning the three conspicuous nations that voted against the measure.

United Nations General Assembly chamber. Photo by Chris Erbach.

The treaty is expected to go into force after 50 states ratify it, and given the overwhelming support for the treaty, this should only take one or two years. It is the first treaty of its kind to highlight the connection between cross-border arms transfers and human rights abuses, and calls for requiring arms dealers to consider the intent of their buyers and report that information to authorities. Proponents champion the treaty's focus on this fact, arguing that for far too long there has been a noticeable tie between arms dealings and human rights abuses, insecurity and violence.

ATT has a few shortcomings yet significant implications for arms dealers and their customers.  One of the obvious restraints is that since the measure will likely take years for individual states to ratify, we can expect huge domestic lobbying efforts from both supporters and opponents of the treaty. Already in the United States there is significant push back against the Arms Trade Treaty. Conservative senators have already threatened to vote against the measure's ratification, and the NRA's fear-mongering campaign may pressure many politicians to reconsider their support. Senator Jim Inhofe has succeeded in adding an item to the Fiscal Year 2014 Budget that would create a fund to block the implementation of ATT. It should be noted that many U.S. officials and legal experts, recently including a statement from Secretary of State John Kerry, conclude that the ATT has absolutely no bearing on Americans' right to bear arms whatsoever, despite frequent claims by pro-guns groups espousing the opposite view. Despite domestic opposition to the ratification of ATT in some countries, another important obstacle is the absence of any kind of treaty enforcement mechanism. Until such a mechanism comes to fruition, the treaty is unlikely to have any real effect. Nonetheless, ATT's adoption at the General Assembly is an important symbol of international efforts to reign in the seemingly uncontrollable flow of weapons on the international plane.

The next question will be whether the international community can build off of this framework, as ATT only focuses on arms sales, and doesn't address arms loans or aid. Given great power wariness--both officially and domestically--toward the treaty, it is likely that any future developments that would build on ATT will need to be consistent with their domestic laws and foreign endeavors. Russia's abstention is partly a product of both, as it complained in July of 2012 of the treaty's inconsistency with it's domestic legislation and of its shady arms transfers to Asad's forces in Syria. All in all, the treaty is a positive development in line with the emerging international consensus on the protection of human, not state, rights and clearly in line with the UN's values of promoting peace and stability to all corners of the globe.

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