Comment & analysis

Securing a robust Arms Trade Treaty

1 March 2013 Roy Isbister

In the run up to the Final UN Diplomatic Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty Saferworld's Roy Isbister discusses the key issues that must be addressed to secure an effective treaty.

With a little over two weeks to go before the Final Diplomatic Conference (DipCon2) on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), momentum is growing to ensure the successful outcome of the negotiations.

While the first Diplomatic Conference, held in July 2012 (DipCon1), failed to produce consensus around the draft text, it was nonetheless accepted that this text would form the basis of negotiations at DipCon2. Although the same consensus rules will apply during DipCon2, progressive UN Member States and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are working relentlessly to achieve a comprehensive, robust and effective ATT.

For Saferworld, such a treaty needs to contain the widest possible scope, the highest global standards/criteria, and clear obligations for effective implementation. This will involve strengthening the draft text in several key areas, including:

  • The 26 July text restricts controls to the limited range of major offensive conventional arms covered by the UN Register of Conventional Arms plus small arms and light weapons (SALW), and excludes ammunition, parts and components, as well as technology for the manufacture of military equipment.  Broadening this scope to include all conventional arms and munitions and their parts and components is key to delivering a treaty that has wide applicability and will be relevant to most states. 
  • Express prohibitions against transfers need to be broadened so that they apply where states have knowledge or a reasonable expectation that the transferred arms will be used to aid or assist in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, or a consistent pattern of serious violations of human rights.
  • The treaty needs to oblige states to apply a comprehensive risk assessment when considering whether to transfer arms.  In addition to considering risks regarding violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law, and relating to terrorist acts (as already set out on the 26 July text), states should also assess risks relating to corruption, crime, development, armed violence and diversion, along with the risk that a transfer might undermine peace and security, and refuse transfers where those risks are too high.
  • The ATT needs to provide robust implementation provisions with no loopholes or get-out clauses. For example, the current article that risks being interpreted as subordinating the ATT to defence cooperation agreements and ‘other instruments’ significantly hinders the purpose of the treaty.  Strong implementation also requires that all the states involved in the transfer chain (as exporters, importers, transit or transhipment states, or states that are a locus for brokering activities) exchange information on transfers and on diversion risks in particular.  Furthermore, effective implementation of the ATT depends on transparency in the international arms trade; therefore, national reports need to be publicly available.
  • The final provisions of the ATT need to enable its swift entry-into-force (EIF). The current threshold of 65 ratifications is too high and could delay EIF by several years. Moreover, to enable the ATT to keep abreast of the continual evolution of the arms trade, amendments to the treaty should be able to be adopted on the basis of a two-thirds majority at Conferences of States Parties.

Achieving these improvements is not going to be easy, but most of them do have widespread support among states. Saferworld and its civil society partners will be working with these states in the run up to and during DipCon2 to achieve the goal of a robust ATT that will effectively curb the irresponsible trade in arms, save lives lost to violence, and reduce the suffering of thousands affected by the ravages of war.

Settling for a weak treaty is not an option. Therefore, if the consensus-based DipCon2 fails to agree a satisfactory text, Saferworld will continue to work with the progressive majority to ensure that the treaty that the world has been waiting for will be adopted later this year by vote at the UN General Assembly.

Roy Isbister is Head of Arms Transfer Controls for Saferworld.

Read more about our work on the ATT.


“Settling for a weak treaty is not an option.”

Roy Isbister