Comment & analysis

A successful, pragmatic, fair, and universal Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) will be welcomed by all

5 February 2013

Six years since the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) first appeared on the UN’s agenda, in July 2012 the international community came close to agreeing on a treaty text. However, on the last day of the conference, states failed to reach consensus. States will gather in a second attempt to finalise a treaty in March 2013. While we are expecting a successful ATT to be reached in March 2013, we must have an objective and clear understanding that, after all, the ATT will be a product of disputes and compromise.

The position of the United States (US) is most critical to the ATT process. While only a majority of votes was required at the UN First Committee on 7 November 2012 to pass Resolution L.11 and mandate a further round of negotiations, the US’s positive vote – which followed President Obama’s re-election – was symbolically important for the process. At the same time, this vote only demonstrates that the United States agrees to continue the negotiations, or in other words, it does not want to be blamed for sabotaging the ATT process. Furthermore, arguments about the issue of domestic firearm ownership in the US may intrude on the Diplomatic Conference.  Following the recent shootings at Sandy Hook, gun control has become a major political issue, to which the US Administration is apparently determined to respond. Despite the fact that the ATT is focused only on the international trade of arms, these domestic debates may have an impact on US policy towards the Treaty. 

Substantive issues such as the criteria, scope, implementation, and effectiveness, as well as the issue of consensus decision-making, will continue to be the main focus of debates in March. As of now, an ATT is only a step away from us, which means both hope and challenge. To make a breakthrough it will need support and collaboration from all parties. It is believed that most countries will temporarily put aside the disputes and take everyone's interests into account in order to agree on a treaty.

A strong ATT is in line with China's own interests. First, China is still facing the threat that transnational organised criminal groups and terrorist organisations collude with separatist forces to commit violent activities that are closely related to illegal smuggling and possession of firearms and ammunition. Second, China has a relatively small share of the conventional arms export market. Its business sector, which is guided and managed by the government, will not be affected enormously by the ATT, which favours government guidance and management. Third, as an ATT is favoured by all parties, China seeks to act as a responsible player, to further improve its laws and regulations as well as their enforcement, and bring them in line with international standards as far as possible.

China has shown its flexibility but also its principles during the negotiations. China no longer insists on the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms as defining the scope of the treaty, and is now in favor of an ATT with a larger scope. This shift has contributed to progress of the ATT negotiations. On the other hand, while China has shown such flexibility, it has also made its principles clear, that is the need for fairness, justice and absence of political ideology in the ATT. These principles have been widely echoed by the vast number of developing countries.

Aiming to regulate the conventional arms trade, the ATT is different from the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms, the UN Programme of Action (PoA), and other agreements, yet they are mutually interconnected and complementary. As the world needs an ATT, our expectations must be reasonable: an ATT that sets too many high standards may not be welcomed by many. An ATT that is objective and pragmatic, and that takes into account the national conditions and interests of most countries, that constantly develops and that improves itself will be solid and sustainable.

Professor Ouyang Liping is a researcher at Institute of Strategic Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR). Her research mainly focuses on international arms control and non-proliferation, international security.



“A strong ATT is in line with China's own interests”

Ouyang Liping