Arms Trade Treaty: The work of the United Nations in disarment

Note on how to cite this journal:

Author, Date of the post, WMO Conflict Insight, Title of the post,  ISSN: 2628-6998, https://worldmediation.org/conflict-insight 

Since World War II, an increasing number of states have decided to join world trading systems and thereby lower protectionist barriers. Contrary to general trends, such as trade liberalizations, certain goods such as drugs, antiquities, and arms have more and more become a matter of international control systems. Many governments do more and more restrict and control the flow of arms as part of international regulatory agreements. These regulations aim to minimize negative impacts for general society resulting from traded arms[1].

Weapons are still used for unintended reasons, such as genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, terror attacks, or direct attacks of vulnerable groups. Therefore, treaties, international agreements, aim to regulate the international trade of arms worldwide. The most relevant treaty in this regard is the Arms Trade Treaty, monitored by the United Nations Regional Center for Peace and Disarmament.

Jeff Abramson writes that more than 140 countries supported the United Nations First Committee to proceed with discussions on establishing a global arms trade treaty. However, the United States of America did not vote in favor of the treaty and was unsure if the country will continue its participation in discussions. In case the United States of America would have stopped its participation, this would have had a significant impact on the sustainability of the treaty as the country is the world’s most influential trader of arms[2].

The paper will start with a description of the context of the Arms Trade Treaty. Moreover, I will describe the scope of the treaty and explain to work of the United Nations Center for Peace and Disarmament and the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. Afterward, I will discuss the findings and end the paper with a conclusion. Having worked for United Nations in Nepal inspired me to chose this topic for this paper.

United Nations and Disarmament

The United Nations System

The United Nations was founded in 1945 as an intergovernmental organization. Currently, the United Nations consists of 193 Member States. The United Nations are guided by the principles and purpose of the founding Charter. Through the authority provided in the Charter, the United Nations can become active on problems threatening society, with a focus on security, peace, sustainable development, climate change, disarmament, human rights, humanitarian emergencies, terrorism, food production, and gender equality. The framework of the United Nation’s work is the Sustainable Development Goals.

Furthermore, the United Nations serves as a forum for members to express views in the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, the Security Council, and other entities and bodies of the United Nations system. The United Nations aims to encourage dialogue among members, hosting negotiations, and resolve problems through agreements. Moreover, the United Nations is led by Secretary-General[3].

United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs

The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, UNODA, was founded in January 1998. UNODA was established as a part of the Department for Disarmament Affairs. Originally, UNODA was established in 1982 due to the recommendation of the General Assembly’s second special disarmament session. The name of the organization was changed to Centre for Disarmament Affairs in 1992. In late 1997, the name was changed to Department for Disarmament Affairs. However, in 2007, it was finally renamed to United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs.

UNODA assists in multilateral efforts, aiming at achieving the final goal of complete disarmament under the capable and strict control of the international community. Mass destruction and weapons remain to be the primary concern and threat of humanity. UNODA, therefore, also works on the humanitarian impact of conventional weapons and weapon technology, such as autonomous weapons.

UNODA provides organizational support in disarmament via the General Assembly’s work. UNODA fosters disarmament, focusing on the establishment of dialogue, confidence strengthening on matters of military, encouragement of regional efforts towards disarmament, and transparency.

Furthermore, UNODA provides impartial and updated information on disarmament activities for governments, civil society organizations, the intergovernmental media organizations, the United Nations, and educational institutions. UNODA assists in developing and implementing practical disarmament activities after war and conflict[4].

United Nations Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Asia and the Pacific

The United Nations Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Asia and the Pacific, UNRCPD, supports states in Asia and the Pacific in their efforts for peace, disarmament, and security. UNRCPD belongs to UNODA, which falls under the United Nations Secretariat. Countries covered by UNRCPD mandate include, among others, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal, the Philippines, Timor-Leste, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Malaysia, India, and Indonesia. The UN entity, offers coordination of activities, substantive support on international, regional, and sub-regional levels. Furthermore, UNRCPD assists in information sharing on regional and global activities.

The regional center has the mandate to support activities upon request by the UN Member States in the region. Therefore, UNRCPD works in close partnership with different organizations, civil society organizations, as well as United Nations agencies. UNRCPD focuses on the three following areas:

  • Technical assistance and capacity building
  • Establishing and actively participating in dialogues and
  • Engaging in advocacy and outreach on disarmament.

As a part of the organization’s work, UNRCPD assists nations through capacity building the completely implement the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540; the promotion of disarmament and peace education to increase awareness of the public and thereby support disarmament efforts worldwide. Furthermore, UNRCPD supports countries in the accession of and ratification to the Arms Trade Treaty[5].

From my perspective, UNODA and UNRCPD are very active and committed UN entities. However, having cooperated with UNRCPD during my assignment at the UN in Kathmandu, I frequently heard that both UN agencies are struggling to receive sufficient funding. In times of civil wars and international crises, disarmament can play a major role and is a top priority of the United Nations system. Therefore, hearing about funding struggles was surprising to me. Furthermore, I find the chosen location of UNRCPD in Kathmandu, Nepal. As Kathmandu is, compared to other regional hubs, such as Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore, or Bangkok, relatively small with only a few regional partners at the same location. Also, considering the wide range of countries covered by the office, communication, cultural differences, and access to information is often difficult. Consultants might be experts in the field for certain countries, but also develop and conduct workshops in countries and contexts they have little knowledge about. Also, I believe that cooperation with national UN offices, such as UNDP, might be beneficial for mutual projects, such as in training for military or government stakeholders.

The Arms Trade Treaty

Context

International law provides opportunities to resolve international issues, often resulting from customary practices. However, international law has, compared to domestic law, no central authority to enforce the regulations. Domestic law can utilize penalties to implement laws, such as imprisonment. International law, however, uses treaties for common agreements among state parties[6].

The Arms Trade Treaty, ATT, regulates the trade of conventional arms on an international level. The treaty covers small arms, battle tanks, warships, and combat aircrafts. The treaty entered into force in December 2014[7].

The ATT aims to reduce illicit arms trade and human suffering as a result of the irresponsible transfer of arms. Furthermore, the ATT aims to enhance regional stability and security and promote transparency and accountability of countries involved in weapon trade. Nevertheless, ATT does not put restrictions on specific types or quantity of arms that a state is allowed to buy, sell, or possess. Additionally, ATT does not influence domestic gun control laws or policies on individual firearm ownership.

The ATT was the result of an almost twenty-year-long process, including advocacy, diplomacy efforts, and many meetings. In July 2012, after a two-week-long conference, North Korea, Iran, and Syria blocked the final text. Therefore, supporters moved to the UN General Assembly that then endorsed the ATT by votes. 156 states agreed, three disagreed, and 23 states gave abstentions. The treaty was then opened for signature.

The provisions of the ATT include regulations on the categories of conventional arms to which the ATT will apply, according to articles 1 and 2. Article 3 of the ATT requires nations to regulate the export of munitions fired. Article 6 and 7 states the conditions on export regulations. Article 6 specifically prohibits arms trade that would oppose international legal obligations. Article 7 provides guidelines for authorities on how to consider the potential of arms. Articles 12 and 13 regulate how states need to keep records of the export of conventional arms [8].

Scope

The ATT requires all parties to establish fundamental rules and processes for approval for the trade and cross-border flow of weapons. Furthermore, the treaty establishes common standards for export and import. More specifically, the states need to implement and maintain national control systems for weapons and a control list. Also, states need to designate competent authorities to ensure transparent national control procedures and systems.

The treaty prohibits the transfer for arms to countries that would violate United Nations Security Council measures, specifically arms embargoes. The treaty focusses precisely on weapons trade when states know that weapons would be misused for crimes against humanity, attacks against civilians, war crimes, or breaches the Geneva Convention of 1949.

Moreover, the treaty requires states to assess how exported weapons would contribute to or undermine security and peace. Countries need to analyze if weapons might be used to violate human rights, contribute to terrorism, organized transnational crime, and establish activities to prevent the mitigate risks. If the risks remain high, weapons shall not be exported.

States are furthermore required to establish a national control system to control the export of ammunition and munitions fired or delivered by conventional arms like missiles, attack helicopters, or warships.

Each country is required to take necessary steps to control the brokering of weapons taking place in its territory and prevent the diversion of arms. Furthermore, every state is obliged to submit an annual report on the imports and exports of weapons [9].

UNRCPD’s ATT support in Timor-Leste

As a part of UNRCPD’s efforts to support countries in the implementation of ATT, the organization concluded baseline studies to assess the national capacity of Timor-Leste to regulate conventional arms, light weapons, and small arms. The project was initiated on request of the Government of Timor-Leste.

Furthermore, through the project, UNRCPD provided legal and technical assistance to the Timor-Leste government to facilitate ATT’s further implementation. UNRCPD consultants met with stakeholders of the Government of Timor-Leste, reviewed plans, supported the implementation of strategies, provided training, and gave recommendations on the steps to take[10].

Discussion

From my perspective, ATT is a critical element of sustainable peace. Treaties are useful tools to regulate relations between states. Currently, the ATT proves its impact and value in how it regulates the transparency of cross-border weapon transfer. Article 5 states that State Parties are encouraged to implement provisions of the document.

Nevertheless, it is recognized that potential export can still cause tragic humanitarian disasters.

Horrible wars in Yemen or Syria are often coupled with rivalries of power between global players like Russia, the United States of America, and China. Unsurprisingly, weapons are a thriving industry worldwide. Significant weapons sales in the last five years increased by about ten percent. The United States of America remains the leader of arms exporters and is accountable for 34 percent of global arms sales. The export of America is 58 higher than Russia’s, which is the second-largest exporter of weapons. Among the biggest consumer of America’s weapon industry are countries of the Middle East, often known to be war-torn to date. The biggest importer of American weapons is Saudi Arabia, which is one of the leading powers of the war in Yemen. The United Nations calls the war in Yemen a human-made disaster.

Many organizations, such as Amnesty International, are disappointed about the implementation of the ATT. Critical voices believe that the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, by continuing to trade arms with Saudi Arabia, continuously violate ATT provisions. Nevertheless, the UK’s highest court ruled the trade of weapons between the UK government and Saudi Arabia as lawful.

One can argue that the ATT might have an impact on curbing the weapons flow to non-state actors, but that it had, so far, no visible impact on the overall arms trade[11].

I believe that the treaty is violated through the actions of many different states. Therefore, states urgently need to come together with the Secretary-General to discuss the implementation of the treaty.

Conclusion

Weapons misused in war contributed to the most disastrous scenarios in history. War crimes, genocide, civil war, or terror attacks still threaten humanity. Nevertheless, the trade of weapons continues to persist. One could ask oneself:

  • Why is ATT even needed? Why is it necessary that arms are traded to countries like Saudi Arabia?
  • Does the United States of America violate the ATT? Why do countries violate treaties?
  • Are financial interests more critical than regulated trade, which leads to a decrease in killing and humanitarian disasters?
  • Are treaties regarding the trade of weapons useful?
  • How can they become more effective?

I firmly believe that treaties are crucial; however, its enforcement remains restricted as central authorities enforcing laws remain limited. Ethics, humanity, and value-based interventions of state actors and government entities remain of high importance to ensure peace and stability worldwide. The assessment of the possible outcomes of weapon trade, transparency, regular reporting on weapon trade with support through United Nations entities and bodies, such as UNODA and UNRCDP, need to strengthen and improve the commitment of states through increased awareness. Nevertheless, possible sanctions on countries that violate treaties need to be taken into consideration.

Having worked for United Nations entities in the past, I firmly believe that UN support and mechanisms can be crucial to bringing State Members together to discuss and implement agreements. The United Nations Treaty Section also serves as a forum to draft, develop, and implement treaties of a different kind. Moreover, one should not forget that it’s not only the weapons and trade with weapons but also the people who use the weapons. I believe that national laws on the use and possession of arms, which do not fall under international law, must be reviewed by national entities to ensure peace under their territory. Understanding ATT and treaty mechanisms are crucial skills for everyone working in disarmament and conflict resolution.

Bibliography

Abramson, Jeff. “Arms Trade Treaty Discussion Creeps Forward | Arms Control Association.” 2020. Accessed March 29, 2020. https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2008-12/arms-trade-treaty-discussion-creeps-forward.

Arms Control Association. “The Arms Trade Treaty At a Glance.” 2017. Accessed March 29, 2020. https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/arms_trade_treaty.

Bowler, Tim. “Which Country Dominates the Global Arms Trade?” BBC News, May 10, 2018, sec. Business. Accessed March 29, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-43873518.

Dixon, Gregory C. International Law (POLS4501/5501) 01, 2014. Accessed March 25, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6PMzBFtCww.

Efrat, Asif. “Toward Internationally Regulated Goods: Controlling the Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons” 2001. Accessed March 29, 2020. https://www.cambridge.org/core/product/identifier/S0020818309990257/type/journal_article.

United Nations. “About Us – UNODA.” Last modified n.d. Accessed March 29, 2020. https://www.un.org/disarmament/about/.

———. “Arms Trade Treaty – UNODA,” n.d. Accessed March 29, 2020. https://www.un.org/disarmament/convarms/arms-trade-treaty-2/.

———. “Overview.” Last modified October 2, 2014. Accessed March 26, 2020. https://www.un.org/en/sections/about-un/overview/index.html.

———. “UNRCPD Concludes First Part of Project to Support Timor-Leste in Implementation of UN PoA and ATT.” 2019. Accessed March 29, 2020. https://www.un.org/disarmament/update/263033/.

UNRCPD. “About UNRCPD.” UNRCPD. n.d. Accessed March 29, 2020. http://unrcpd.org/about/.

[1] Asif Efrat, “Toward Internationally Regulated Goods: Controlling the Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons,” 98-99.

[2] Jeff Abramson, “Arms Trade Treaty Discussion Creeps Forward | Arms Control Association,” 2020, accessed March 29, 2020, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2008-12/arms-trade-treaty-discussion-creeps-forward.

[3] United Nations, “Overview,” 2014, accessed March 26, 2020, https://www.un.org/en/sections/about-un/overview/index.html.

[4] United Nations, “About Us – UNODA,” n.d., accessed March 29, 2020, https://www.un.org/disarmament/about/.

[5] UNRCPD, “About UNRCPD,” UNRCPD, n.d., accessed March 29, 2020, http://unrcpd.org/about/.

[6] Gregory C. Dixon, International Law (POLS4501/5501) 01, 2014, accessed March 25, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6PMzBFtCww.

[7] United Nations, “Arms Trade Treaty – UNODA,” n.d., accessed March 29, 2020, https://www.un.org/disarmament/convarms/arms-trade-treaty-2/.

[8] Arms Control Association, “The Arms Trade Treaty At a Glance,” 2017, accessed March 29, 2020, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/arms_trade_treaty.

[9] Arms Control Association, “The Arms Trade Treaty At a Glance.”

[10] United Nations, “UNRCPD Concludes First Part of Project to Support Timor-Leste in Implementation of UN PoA and ATT,” 2019, accessed March 29, 2020, https://www.un.org/disarmament/update/263033/.

[11] Tim Bowler, “Which Country Dominates the Global Arms Trade?,” BBC News, May 10, 2018, sec. Business, accessed March 29, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/business-43873518.

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3 Responses

  1. Thank you for the article. It is interesting to note that the UNRCPD is strategically located. Also one wonders if some policy makers in cold-hearted ways think that the world is overly populated and are not working towards peace or more equatable living conditions in the world. I have been told over and over again that population growth is not the main problem of our world while how unevenly resources and wealth are applied is. Mediation is a most important tool to further understanding of different interests and values.

    1. Dear Finnur,
      Thanks a lot for sharing your interesting thoughts. For sure, mediation plays a key role in addressing conflicts that result from growing inequalities. In the meanwhile, international organizations, as well as the civil society, need to continue their advocacy work to ensure that mediation can actually happen.
      Best,
      Tobias

  2. Dear Tobias,
    Thank you for the article. It is a common practice in the international space to see countries, even those with the best intentions violate international treaties. It is a case of throwing babies into the sea from one end of the shore and complaining at the other end that babies are dying. Your statement speaks, in my opinion clearly to the issue, “Unsurprisingly, weapons are a thriving industry worldwide.” The world thrives on economic prosperity than securing the lives and well-being of human beings. The growing arms race ensures sovereign security for powerful countries, then nuclear programme controversy creates another huge burden as Iran and North Korea are unrelenting in the chase. The cards are on the table, all members will need to play, as the UN should serve as the monitoring body for multilateral harmony.

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