The fatal flaw in the Arms Trade Treaty: we will never know if it has been effective

Last week in New York, the UN General Assembly voted to adopt the Arms Trade Treaty by 154 votes to 3 ( The “Control Arms” NGOs and some states have claimed that this Treaty will save lives by denying human rights abusers, committers of atrocities etc. conventional weapons or weapons systems. However, the NGOs have never articulated how we will know if the Treaty is effective, and this is what I am going to look at in this blog.

Let me clear I have followed the Control Arms campaign since its launch in 2003, although I have always been sceptical about what how useful the end result would be. Although I am associated with Campaign Against Arms Trade (, all my remarks here are my own views only.

First of all the Treaty is actually quite narrow in scope in that its object (Article 1) is to “prevent and eradicate the illicit trade in conventional arms and prevent their diversion”. Although the Treaty does not define the word “illicit” in my Collins Gem English dictionary the word means “illegal, prohibited, forbidden”. In other words the UN has only agreed to try and prevent and eradicate the arms trade which is not sanctioned by Government. So, the object is not, to take one current example, to eradicate the arming of Assad by the Russians which is one of the many reasons the terrible suffering in Syria continues.

However, the other object is to improve the “regulation” of the international trade in arms and this is where, one imagines, the NGOs think that one could try and reduce or stop the level of arms sales from Russia to Syria or prevent a similar problem in the future. Various Articles in the Treaty set out the tests States should use to decide whether to agree or refuse a proposed arms export.

It is self-evident that to evaluate any public policy, you need information. And, obviously, information that is adequate to test whether the stated policy is working or not. So, for the Arms Trade Treaty, it must be a minimum requirement that the information provided by States must include information about whether the tests set out in the Treaty are applied correctly. And if not that, at least information which would enable reasonable inferences to be drawn about whether the tests were being applied correctly.

So what are States required to do in the Arms Trade Treaty?

In Article 5.4 States are required to provide a “control list” of items where an export permit or licence is needed from the Government of the exporting country. This “control list” is to be circulated to the other participating States, but it is not a requirement they are made publicly available. Provision of a control list, while of value, will not help us evaluate the effectiveness of the Treaty.

In Article 13 States must report, after the Treaty’s first year, an “initial” report of the “measures undertaken” to implement the Treaty. Thereafter States do not have to provide any further information about “measures undertaken”.

The other thing States must do is provide an annual report “concerning authorised or actual exports and imports of conventional arms” defined in Article 2(1). Again there is no requirement the reports are made publicly available.

There is no definition of what information should be provided, States are permitted to exclude “commercially sensitive or national security information” at will, and nowhere in the Treaty does the Secretariat have power to specify what must be in the reports. So, for example, were Russia reporting, they could simply say “Last year we exported 400 battle tanks, 800 armoured combat vehicles and no other conventional arms”. To be compliant they would have to provide no further information than that sentence (assuming that sentence was true). They do not have to provide as much information as that provided to the UN Register of Conventional Arms.

It seems to me self-evident that the reporting provisions are so weak, no evaluation of the Arms Trade Treaty can be possible. And because of this, there is no way any State which is violating the Treaty cannot be held to account, because nowhere in the Treaty do they have to cough up the necessary information. Public reports of dubious transfers can simply be dismissed by an assertion that the Treaty has been complied with. It is self-evident that the States which are “violating” the Treaty are unlikely to provide adequate information. Further, and more worryingly, it means that it is going to be rather difficult to justify any desirable amendments to the Treaty, as there will likely be no adequate evidence at all to base any arguments on.

Luckily the Treaty does contain much better provisions on reviews and amendments than previous drafts so it is possible that over a (very long) period of time, the reporting provision could be improved. But it will be at least six years from the time the Treaty is adopted (50 States need to ratify, so possibly in a year or so?), so in the best case about seven years from now. And there is of course no guarantee any proposed useful reporting provision will be acceptable to the three-quarters of the ratifying States.

So if insufficient information is provided either to hold any States to account or to even evaluate the effectiveness of the Treaty, will someone answer this: what is the point of the Arms Trade Treaty when States will continue, as they do now, to have complete freedom of action in decisions on arms exports?

I appreciate that this is a depressing conclusion to draw after 10 years of international negotiation, with much hard work done by very many well-meaning people. But that is no excuse for failing to look the facts squarely in the face.

In my next blog on this topic I will look at other inadequacies of the Treaty text.
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Published on April 06, 2013 07:23
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message 1: by Richard (new)

Richard Sanders Glad to see another critique of the ATT to counter the positive reception it received from the globe's largest weapons-exporting nations and their allies in some of the world's biggest NGOs.

Here are some other critiques of the ATT:

Arms Trade Treaty could Legitimise Arms Sales Media Release, Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) (UK)

Arms Trade Treaty: A Historic and Momentous Failure by Kirk Jackson, Online Communications Coordinator, CAAT (UK)

We have an Arms Trade Treaty -- What difference does it make? by Wendela de Vries, Dutch Campaign Against Arms Trade

Arms Trade Treaty -- Towards What End? by D.Raghunandan, Delhi Science Forum (India)

Why the Arms Trade Treaty is a Failure by Barnaby Pace, The Armourers Faith (UK)

The links to these articles, and much more, can be found at the website of COAT, Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade

richard sanders
editor, Press for Conversion, COAT's magazine

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