Comment & analysis

What will the ATT be?

5 February 2013

Since last July’s UN efforts on concluding an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), possibilities for the March 2013 UN conference have been talked about with great anxiety, and experts and scholars have divergent views on whether the ATT will be passed with consensus or not.

Different sections of global society have different expectations of the ATT. Arms exporting countries want to boost the arms trade while the arms importing countries prefer higher-quality but cheaper-priced goods. However, all responsible governments and civil society groups stand for an effective and legally binding ATT, which is the common desire of the international community. With an effective ATT they hope that conventional arms will not be proliferated and wantonly used by irresponsible actors, so as to maintain stability and peace in the regions and the world. This common vision of the ATT enjoys broad support of the global population, hence, its moral high ground.

Based on past experience, each country has its own concerns and special interests. As the Chinese saying goes, even the best chef cannot satisfy the taste of all the diners. As for the outcome of the March 2013 ATT negotiations, we may take another approach. Every country matters for the ATT outcome, yet what matters most is the position of the United States (US). This assertion is based on the fact the US’s arms trade volume alone constitutes a major portion of the world’s total. If the US is not fully involved in the future ATT discussions or the ATT is not legally binding for the US, the ATT will be insignificant, if not futile. So, it is suggested here that if we want to know what the ATT will be like after the UN conference, we should see what the US is likely to do or not to do. The following points may not necessarily capture all the elements of the suggestion, and they serve only to provoke some thoughts.

On one hand, the US may play a positive role. The US must take moral high ground if it intends to play a leading role in the international affairs. The US negative act of last July – where the US effectively blocked the treaty’s passing – may have been due to the presidential election and fears of offending the arms industries and their votes, but that time has now passed. School campus shootings that happened in rapid succession may add weight to small arms control.

However, the US position may also be negative. Its position on some categories of arms export control may undermine consensus with other countries. For economic and financial benefits, some in the US arms industry may object to the inclusion of some munitions and ammunition. The US military may also oppose some categories for its own reasons. For example, due to the perceived military advantage they provide, the US military may object to the inclusion of cluster bombs and landmines. Furthermore, civil society groups, such as the National Rifle Association, also object to the inclusion of some categories of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW).

There are some other crucial areas of continued controversy, including the role of ideological considerations (such as democracy, human rights, and personal freedom) in guiding standards of arms transfer authorisations, the question of whether arms can go to only state actors or also to non-state actors, the role of end-user certificates and verification, legal defense requirements, and matters of anti-terrorism and anti-corruption.

A further issue is what type of an ATT implementation and cooperation institution states will be able to agree on. States have demonstrated no appetite for an institution along the lines of, for example, the International Atomic Energy Agency, with its strong mandate regarding supervision, inspection, verification and compliance. However, debates remain regarding the precise nature of Treaty institutions, and whatever is agreed upon will impact on the effectiveness of Treaty implementation.

The US has always felt that its arms export control system is perfect, and the US agreement to participate in the UN ATT making was probably a mere policy option. Even if the ATT comes into being and every rule is applied, conflicts of interests will be more numerous than expected. Such disputes will remain contested throughout the ATT’s future.     

Mr Zhai Dequan is Deputy Secretary General and Senior Research Fellow of China Arms Control and Disarmament Association (CACDA), dealing with international security strategy, major powers relations and non-proliferations of WMD and conventional arms


“Even if the ATT comes into being and every rule is applied, conflicts of interests will be more numerous than expected. Such disputes will remain contested throughout the ATT’s future. ”

Zhai Dequan