The Arms Trade Treaty can work best where it sidesteps the great powers’ strategic interests.
The effectiveness of the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) has been under fire. Designed to regulate international trade in conventional arms, lack of support by some of the world’s great powers has reduced its reach.
But it is important to have realistic expectations. It is too much to expect that the ATT, or any other international treaty, can force major powers to resist actions that they judge to be against their strategic interests.
Setting international principles and standards and enabling coalitions of willing governments, civil society groups and international organisations to co-operate on implementing control even without the co-operation of some ‘sceptical’ states remains an important aspect of the treaty, and one worth emphasising.
In much of the world, arms transfers are badly regulated leading to destabilising or abusive arms flows and misuse that are not in any nation’s real interests. ATT membership commits member countries to ensure good standards in the criteria and procedures they use when deciding whether to authorise an arms import or export or transit or transportation of an arms shipment through their jurisdiction. Each government retains its independent decision-making authority in almost all cases, deciding whether the arms transfer is in line with international criteria. The ATT does prohibit arms transfers that would break UN Security Council embargoes or other relevant international obligations, or if the government “has knowledge at the time of authorisation” that the items would be used to commit genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes.
Only some of the problems the ATT aims to address arise from deliberate strategic decisions by major powers to authorise arms shipments. Many of the dangerous and destabilising arms flows arise because of inadequacies in national regulations, control and enforcement systems, or lack of national capacity to monitor and assess risks.
Often, the problems arise because corrupt or irresponsible state officials are able to exploit these weaknesses to authorise arms transfers for their own interests without adequate accountability.
Where the ATT has had some success is in establishing good standards for national control systems and has mobilised substantial international programmes to assist countries to achieve them. The ATT can provide the necessary standards and assistance to help with national reforms – directly through official assistance programmes but also indirectly as a reference point for national campaigners.
These types of influencing mechanisms are unlikely to lead to improved arms transfer controls in authoritarian states if their elites resist. But they can be important in countries that are undergoing wider political reforms.
This includes many countries in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere. ATT norms and assistance programmes have become influential and prominent in several regions; including West and East Africa; Latin America; and Oceania.
One of the biggest international challenges involving the ATT is to prevent and reduce the diversion of arms transfers to unauthorised destinations or end-users. In practice, this is the biggest source of arms flowing to areas of civil war, social violence or terrorism.
Licensed arms exports may be diverted during international transit. Alternatively, the arms arrive at their authorised destination but are then re-exported or allowed to fall into the wrong hands.
There are many ways to reduce risks of diversion – including denying licences for exports that are at risk of diversion, post-delivery checks, and restrictions on re-export. The ATT includes clear legal obligations to prevent and combat diversion, and in practice has become the main global framework for developing international good practices and co-operation to address it. Although European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation states have closer and more trusted mechanisms for sharing sensitive information between themselves on this matter, ATT working groups enable discussions and cooperation with other countries and regions.
This is probably the most dynamic aspect of ATT activity currently. Even if there are some states that cynically neglect or exploit diversion activities in practice, they can scarcely object to the majority of ATT members co-operating to tackle the problem.
As of now, some 111 countries have ratified the Arms Trade Treaty with another 30 countries having signed but not ratified – leaving 54 states entirely outside the treaty. There is a well-established ATT secretariat, a suite of ATT expert working groups and regular meetings of the countries.
Thus the ATT is fully operational. West European countries, Japan, and key members of the African Union and Organisation of American States, prominently support the ATT. But Russia, India, Saudi Arabia and several other major arms exporting and importing states have not even signed the ATT. The United States has signed, but strong Republican Party opposition means that it is unlikely America will ratify it in the foreseeable future.
Interestingly, shortly after former president Donald Trump declared his opposition to the ATT in 2019, China proceeded to ratify the treaty. This indicates that China decided it can live with the ATT’s legal obligations while taking a diplomatic opportunity to demonstrate its multilateral credentials in contrast to the US.
China and the US both believe that their existing national arms transfer control systems meet ATT standards and principles. Their contributions to the effectiveness of the ATT depend less on their ratification status and more on their willingness to share relevant information, assess and reduce risks of potential arms transfers, and co-operate with wider ATT implementation efforts.
The Biden Administration has at least resumed co-operation with the ATT. Hopefully, China’s membership will enable further development of working-level co-operation with Chinese officials. India argues that the ATT does not sufficiently reflect states’ rights to import arms for their national security. Russia on the other hand makes it clear that it will continue actively to use arms exports as an instrument to promote its international interests, and ‘does not see the point’ of signing up to the ATT and its norms on arms transfers. Similarly, Iran and Saudi Arabia appear to have little interest in supporting the ATT.
It seems clear that it will be a struggle to change the policies of several of the great powers; particularly on arms transfers to sub-regions where there is hot geostrategic competition such as the Middle East.
But 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. The case studies of good standards for national control systems, and frameworks for international collaboration on the issue remain useful in establishing a wider narrative that diversion and unrestrained trade are not tolerated by the international community.
The treaty sets a standard. From there, it depends on the extent to which countries and civil society groups are willing and able to improve their regulation of all aspects of arms transfers; and to co-operate to tackle problems.
Owen Greene (ORCID) is Professor of International Security and Development and Director of Research and Innovation at the Department of Peace Studies and International Development, University of Bradford, UK. He was closely involved as an advisor and expert in the process of negotiating the Arms Trade Treaty and subsequently in the establishment and activities of ATT and associated working groups since 2014 working with governments, regional organisations and international civil society networks. He declares no conflict of interest with the above article.