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Special Report

All over the world, weapons are bought and sold in massive numbers. : Michael Joiner, 360info CC BY 4.0 All over the world, weapons are bought and sold in massive numbers. : Michael Joiner, 360info CC BY 4.0

International relations pundits, who like to scent the air for the winds of change, will have their senses tuned to the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty Conference starting August 22 in Geneva. The world’s biggest exporter of arms, the United States, symbolically pulled out of the international agreement in 2019 under President Donald Trump. President Joe Biden has not yet shown much indication that he is ready to restart engagement. Russia appears to have low regard for the treaty, having neither signed nor ratified it. Meanwhile China acceded in 2020. Unusually for UN conferences, this makes China the biggest power at the table.

Much has been made of the Arms Trade Treaty, which aims to regulate the global flow of weaponry so that it can’t be used for human rights abuses. When it was signed in 2013, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called it “an historic diplomatic achievement – the culmination of long held dreams and many years of effort”. But in the years since, it has been criticised for being undersubscribed, too lax and with too many loopholes. Experts fear that attempts to beef it up could turn more nations off than on.

But there is still much that can be done to ensure the treaty’s success. Incremental improvements can add up to perceptible change. Changes to reporting requirements, databases and fostering collaboration between customs organisations are just some of the ideas being explored to nudge the international community towards a more lawful exchange of weapons.


Explore the transfer of arms between groups over the last 70 years with our interactive map. James Goldie, 360info. Data: SIPRI



In 2021 world military expenditure reached US$2.113 trillion 

The US sold $US1 billion in arms to Nigeria in April, even as lawlessness increased.

The Stockholm International Peace Reserach Institute measures the trade in arms in ‘trend indicator value’, a unit that expresses the deadly capability of an item in dollar terms. A tank, for example, has a higher TIV than a rifle. In 2021, roughly US$25 billion worth of TIVs were traded.


Quote attributable to Owen Green, University of Bradford

It’s not all about ratifying the ATT. The principles and norms embedded in the treaty can still act to draw nations away from allowing illicit trades.

Quote attributable to Jadranka Petrovic, Monash University

Unless universal adoption comes, the ATT is likely to be viewed merely as a noble idea and somewhat a paper tiger

Quote attributable to Swaran Singh, Jawaharlal Nehru University and University of British Columbia

While expanding the number of signatories to the ATT may have its merit, it is perhaps time to focus on strengthening its efficacy amongst its signatory parties. 


Sara Phillips
Sara Phillips, Senior Commissioning Editor, 360info Asia-Pacific