We have an Arms Trade Treaty - What difference does it make?


By Wendela de Vries

According to the Control Arms Coalition, which lobbied for a United Nations Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), we have reached “the dawn of a new era” now that the UN General Assembly has adopted the treaty. With this treaty, “history has been made” and we “finally can end arms exports to human rights violators.” Critical voices are put aside as “the tiny minority of sceptics who were intent on wrecking the process” and the blame for the initial failure to adopt the treaty is put on Iran, Syria and North Korea. UN Secretary-General called the treaty “a victory for the people of the world”. With such oversimplified communication one cannot escape the impression that some people try to clamour down their own doubt.

There is quite some gap between what the international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) really is and what these press statements suggest it to be, and it is worthwhile to listen to the – often non-western – voices to understand this. That the treaty has been adopted in the General Assembly with “overwhelming majority” can not conceal the fact that it was not just three pariah states that voted against the treaty. Twenty-three countries (representing half the world's population) abstained from voting , including Russia, China and India. Critique also came from national campaigners against arms trade, who, from experience, did not expect much new from a UN treaty and even feared it might backlash on their campaigns.

The critique can be summarized in three points:

  • 1) An international treaty is not the right instrument to stop arms trade
  • 2) The treaty is reinforcing the power of western arms exporters and legitimizing their debatable policies
  • 3) The treaty is not questioning arms production but on the contrary facilitates the arms industry

No big expectations

The big achievement of the ATT is that “each State Party shall establish and maintain a national control system to regulate the export.” Under this control system, countries shall assess whether the arms could be used for human rights violations, diverted to the illegal market, undermine peace and security or seriously undermine socio-economic development of the importing country. The interesting thing is that such a control system already exists in most of the dominant arms exporting countries: the United States, the European Union, and several countries following EU regulations on arms trade. What can we learn from these existing systems? That arms continue to be exported to Pakistan, Saudi-Arabia, Libya, Israel, Egypt, Bahrain, Colombia and Sri Lanka, to name just a few questionable destinations. Because not only are there no sanctions on ignoring the rules, the rules are deliberately formulated in a way that leaves plenty of room for interpretation. It all depends on the foreign policy of the exporting state.

Under the ATT, countries have to assess whether there is an “overriding risk” that arms will end up in wrong hands or at wrong places. Fifteen years of experience with European Union arms export regulation has taught , that, notably in cases of big commercial or strategical interest, the outcome of such an assessment tends to be that risks are just not 'overriding'. Yes, the importing country might be a human rights violator, but this specific weapon will probably not be used to violate human rights. Or yes the country is involved in armed conflict, but at present there is pause in the fighting so no problem in exporting. Yes, the country is extremely poor, but it really needs an expensive weapon system because of its “legitimate security needs”. Assessment done, obligations met, export is legitimised. In this way, arms exporting regulations are more effective in 'green washing' arms exports than in seriously limiting the risk of exports to nasty destinations.

That the ATT is unlikely to change this has been exposed by the British Campaign Against Arms Trade, which published some illustrative examples. Libya has announced to allocate $4.7 billion, about 10% of its national budget, to acquire advanced weapons systems. Libya thinks it has to 'catch up' after having been under embargo for many years. At the very moment the ATT was agreed on in New York British ministers were in Libya – aboard a warship – to promote British arms. The British are in a hurry because Libya is also looking at Chinese and Russian arms offers. To the previous ATT negotiations in New York, last summer, the British government – a leading advocate of the ATT – only sent a junior minister. The Prime Minister at that time led a delegation of 15 of his ministers, most of them with an arms sales brief, at the 2012 Farnborough Airshow.

How effective is a piece of paper?

Defence cooperation agreements by States Parties are excluded from the ATT, so it will have no effect on the extensive military transfers from the US under the Foreign Military Sales program. The US is giving an annual $1.3 billion military aid to Egypt despite the increasing intolerance of the Morsi regime. Another $3.1 billion is going to Israel every year. Other countries receiving US arms include Pakistan and Iraq. But who really ever expected the US to give up strategically important and profitable arms exports over a UN treaty? The Iranian delegate had a point when he said the ATT made arms trade subject to the “extremely subjective assessment of the exporting states.”

That Russia and China (together with the US and the EU responsible for most of the world's arms export) do not support the treaty, makes it easy to frame them as the bad guys and put the blame of human rights violations and conflicts on them. This is convenient to please the western public opinion. But the real difference is not in their different arms export policies – all based on national self-interest – but in the fact that public opinion in western countries does matter. Therefore western countries need pieces of paper like an ATT, to express their good intentions against the critical public opinion on arms trade. Russia and China have other, more brutal methods to deal with dissent.

Then what will the ATT be, if not just another piece of paper full of good intentions? Probably the ATT will make a difference for the arms trade between smaller countries. The ATT might help some countries to set up a control system. It might help create international funds for such a control system. This is one of the reasons many African countries voted in favour of the treaty. The hope is that this may also help the fight against the illicit arms trade. This is a good thing, although one should remember that a lot of illicit arms trade started with legitimate arms trade from the big arms exporting countries, something the ATT will not change. And would it not have been more effective to just set up a program to help African and other states protect their borders against arms smugglers? One does not need an ATT for that.

Arms trade is essential for military superiority

The whole campaign for an ATT starts from the presumption that an international treaty is an effective instrument to regulate the international arms trade, and that without an ATT we do not have an instrument to limit the arms trade. Both presumptions are wrong. Ever since we have had the Declaration of Human Rights (and please remember that human rights include the right to food, clothing, housing and medical care), we have an instrument to question arms trade to human rights abusers, conflict zones and poor countries. A new international treaty only makes this more specific, but as long as this treaty is as unenforceable as the Declaration of Human Rights, we are not creating a substantially new instrument. Although the ATT is a juridical binding document states cannot be brought to court when arms are exported to a human rights violator. Even if all member states of the United Nations would ratify the ATT (50 ratifications are needed for the treaty to enter into force), it will be the decision of individual states if they live up to the treaty or not. They will have a moral obligation, but there are no legal sanctions when states ignore the ATT.

Actually, arms exporting states would never have agreed to an ATT if there had been sanctions included. Arms trade is an important element to create military partnerships and dependencies. It is an essential instrument of foreign policy and military dominance. The arms exporting military powers will never hand over their autonomy on arms trade to any international treaty or body. They want to arm their allies as they like, whatever the poverty, war or human rights records of these allies.

No limitations, just rules

The ATT is a treaty to regulate, not to restrict the arms trade. It is definitely not a disarmament treaty. When the Control Arms Coalition claims that there are too many arms floating freely over the world one can only agree, but it is the free flow, not the amount that is the object of the ATT. As it says in Article 1 of the ATT: “The object of this Treaty is to establish the highest possible common international standards for regulating or improving the regulation of the international trade in conventional arms; and to prevent and eradicate the illicit trade in conventional arms and prevent their diversion to the illicit market, or unauthorized end use, including to individuals or groups who would commit terrorist acts.”

Indian journalist Seema Sengupta notes that the treaty “pays no attention whatsoever to restricting and stream lining arms manufacturing” and for this blames “the powerful lobby of manufacturers and exporting nations.” She definitely has a point. Many western arms companies were added as advisors to government delegations to the ATT negotiations. They made sure their interests were secured in the treaty. As a consequence the ATT “recognizes the legitimate political, security, economic and commercial interests of States in the international trade in conventional arms”. With this text the treaty goes much further in legitimizing arms trade than does Article 51 of the UN charter which attributes to states the “inherent right of individual or collective self-defence” . It recognises the right to make profit from war. A Bolivian diplomat called the treaty “the product of a death industry”.

Interestingly, arms deliveries to non-state actors do not fall under the treaty. But what is a terrorist and what is a non-state actor? This is up to the exporting country to decide. The 'non-state actors' were left out because the UK wanted to send arms to the Free Syrian Army, which, at present at least, are considered freedom fighters. Arming Hamas in Palestine of course will not count as support for freedom fighting but as support for terrorism. The ATT leaves the decision open to point of view, not to objective standards.

Level playing field for the arms industry

The treaty establishes global rules and creates a level playing field for the global arms industry, much to the liking of the western arms industry, which increasingly fears competition from Russia and China. The treaty facilitates efficient arms trade and arms production. “Increasing the number of countries operating under common standards of control will provide more predictability and confidence for organizations that operate in a global market place and with global supply chains” said the secretary general of the European arms industry lobby ASD when applauding the ATT in Jane's Defence Weekly. And the British Foreign Office sent out a letter on the ATT saying that "International industrial collaboration in arms production will be promoted through the introduction of common standards."

Although the Treaty starts with recalling Article 26 of the Charter of the United Nations “which seeks to promote the establishment and maintenance of international peace and security with the least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources”, it does not conclude that at present, the world is overspending on arms, due to aggressive marketing, uncontrolled lobbying and bribery. Not a word in the ATT on the promotion of arms trade, nor on the exclusion of women in decisions on military purchases – gender violence is named though, women as victims are recognized – nor on the corrupting effects of arms trade. The ATT is just not addressing the roots of the arms trade problem.

Arms trade is political

With the ATT we have not won the battle against arms trade and one can wonder if all the energy and funds gone into the ATT campaign could not have been spent more efficiently on a more concrete campaign. The ATT is a treaty full of loopholes and western biases, and is not really adding something new. We already have the Declaration of Human Rights as a standard of behaviour for governments. The real problem is: how to make governments to live up to this standard?

People in western countries are in the fortunate position that they can keep their governments accountable, and try to change a policy based on national self-interest into a policy based on human rights. This means political action and involves choosing sides. We must choose the side against our national arms industry and in favour of sustainable economic development. Against military strategic interests of our own country, in favour of the right to live in peace for other countries. Against our oil interests -- in favour of democracy. Against selfishness and in favour of protection of the vulnerable. If we want the rest of the world to behave like humans, we should start behaving like humans ourselves.

The campaign for an ATT has not been based on choosing sides but on creating consensus, and denies conflicts of interest. But if you are serious about limiting arms trade you cannot pretend that the world is one happy family all wanting the same thing. We all want peace, yes, but we might have different ideas about how to reach that. We do not all share the same interests. The arms industry has a very specific idea about what is good for peace. The military might have a specific idea about what is good for peace. These ideas are likely to differ greatly from what a young family in a conflict zone thinks of peace.

We have to choose sides, not for a level playing field for the arms industry but for the people who are threatened by war and human rights violations. The Arms Trade Treaty will not make a difference.

Wendela de Vries - Co-ordinator of the Dutch Campaign Against Arms Trade

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