What has the Arms Trade Treaty done for us?

Nicholas Marsh
Research Fellow, Peace Research Institute Oslo
Nicholas Marsh

Nicholas Marsh

When assessing the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), it is important to consider why we spend so much time working on the arms trade. For me there are three reasons:

- supply of weapons to aggressive parties, including those committing atrocities such as war crimes or violations of human rights;
- corruption, secrecy, power politics and other means by which the trade subverts democracy and the rule of law; and
- diversion of otherwise productive resources to unnecessary military use.

The strengths of the treaty are those facets which ameliorate these problems, or have the potential to do so.[1]

The most important strengths of the treaty lie in its ability to prevent the supply of weapons to aggressive governments or other actors. Article 6 contains absolute prohibitions against transfers to parties under embargo, which violate other international agreements the exporter is a party to, and parties which are involved in committing war crimes. These are absolute prohibitions without qualification, and constitute the strongest language in the treaty. Moreover, the provisions are wide ranging. All of Article 6 covers conventional arms and their ammunition and parts. Paragraph 2 contains broad language which prohibits exports by a State "if the transfer would violate its relevant international obligations under international agreements to which it is a Party". In my opinion, this covers International Human Rights Law and the many pre-existing regional and multilateral arms control agreements (particularly concerning small arms and light weapons). The ATT therefore strengthens international law and the existing web of mostly politically binding conventional arms control regimes.[2]

In addition, Article 7 stipulates that all exports of arms, ammunition or parts not prohibited under Article 6 (see above) should be subject to a risk assessment. Stipulated criteria are that the arms could be used to commit serious violations of human rights, war crimes, gender-based violence, organized crime or more generally undermine peace and security. If there is an 'an overriding risk' of these happening then the export should not be authorized. All state parties are therefore required to make an assessment of the risks of a wide range of aggressive uses for arms imports.

Concerning the subversion of democracy and the rule of law, the risk assessments in Article 6 also refer to items exported committing or facilitating "an act constituting an offence under international conventions or protocols relating to transnational organized crime to which the exporting State is a Party." One hundred and seventy-five states are parties to the UN Convention on Transnational Crime, which includes articles on corruption. The ATT therefore indirectly includes a commitment to assess the risk that the items exported would facilitate corruption, and not to authorise the export if there was an 'overriding' risk. This is a step forward in the fight against corruption in the arms trade, as has been recognised by Transparency International.[3] In addition, Article 15 encourages States to take national measures and cooperate with each other to prevent arms transfers "becoming subject to corrupt practices".

Secrecy is one aspect of the trade which both undermines public accountability and also allows other nefarious acts to flourish. The ATT includes the first binding global requirement for states to annually share with each other information on their imports and exports of conventional weapons (Article 13). While the required information exchange is not public, there are good reasons to hope that the ATT will significantly improve public reporting. First, States can use the same reporting format as in the existing voluntary UN Register of Conventional Arms. One problem with the UN Register has been a steadily declining number of States submitting reports,[4] but the reporting requirement in the ATT is likely to reverse this trend. Second, the experience of the EU Code of Conduct on arms exports (from 1997) has shown that a private information exchange can relatively quickly assume a norm of public reporting, as States voluntarily publish their reports.

Although the campaign for an Arms Trade Treaty has not focussed on an overall reduction in armaments or military spending, there is good reason to believe that the ATT will help the cause of reducing overall levels of armament. One of the most important achievements of the ATT campaign has been to change the context in which the arms trade has been discussed. A decade or so ago it was depressingly common to hear governments (especially from Eastern Europe and Asia) assert that all aspects of the trade in conventional arms were legitimate and that they themselves were free of all responsibilities once the arms had crossed their borders (the only exception being UN embargoes). It is very evident to me that the ATT campaign has changed the normative environment,[5] with governments that had exported to anyone that could pay now having negotiated a treaty which explicitly focuses upon the responsibilities of exporters in order to reduce human suffering (Article 1). In years to come this normative aspect may well be seen to have been one of the ATT's greatest strengths. The campaign has to an extent de-legitimized the arms trade. This normative shift, will, I hope, provide a lasting opportunity for success in further campaigns aimed at an overall reduction in the arms trade and in the level of armaments in general.

To conclude, the ATT presents a new opportunity. When signatures and ratifications are complete it is likely that many governments will for the first time be party to a binding agreement which recognises the deleterious effects of the arms trade, as well as their own responsibilities when exporting arms. What is done with that opportunity is now down to the people working with the arms trade. The strengths outlined in this article will only have an effect on the groundif their potential is realized in the way in which the ATT is interpreted and implemented. As stated by the representative of Mexico on the floor of the UN General Assembly after the ATT vote "This is just the beginning, the hard work starts now".

[1] This article, as requested by the editors, focuses upon the strengths of the ATT. I shall not mention the weaknesses (of which there are many); space is limited and they are covered in another article in this issue.

[2] For an overview of the various regional and multilateral agreements, see: Greene, Owen and Nicholas Marsh. 2012. 'Governance and Small Arms and Light Weapons.' In: Greene, Owen and Nicholas Marsh (eds.) 2012 Small Arms Crime and Conflict Global Governance and the Threat of Armed Violence. London: Routledge.

[3] See Transparency International. Undated. Transparency International welcomes historic adoption of UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). Accessed 7 May 2013 at:

[4] See: Holtom, Paul; Lucie Béraud-Sudreau; and Henning Weber. 2011. Reporting to the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms. SIPRI Fact Sheet. Stockholm: SIPRI.

[5] For more on this normative shift, see: McDonald, Glenn. 2013. 'Worth the Paper? The Arms Trade Treaty' Published by e-International Relations, 17 April, Accessed 17 April 2013 at; and Marsh, Nicholas. 2013. 'Arms Trade Treaty, the work has just begun.' NISAT Blog Small Arms Crime and Conflict, 10 April, available via