In Syria, a civil war is being fuelled by the transfer of conventional weapons from outside the country despite violations of humanitarian law and human rights abuses on both sides. The arms flows into conflicts, like Syria’s, have recently convinced states to adopt the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty (hereinafter also ‘ATT’). A new international norm regulating the international trade in conventional arms that went into effect on Christmas Eve.

Until last week no international treaty comprehensively regulated the international trade in conventional weapons. The control of arms is essential for the maintenance of international peace and security. In his statement U.N. Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon described the adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty as historic.

International trade in arms

The international trade in conventional arms is a global business and is as old as the history of war. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates that the total financial value of the global arms trade in 2011 was $43 billion. But despite its financial value, the global arms trade could also be seen as a major factor in global politics. Especially after the two World Wars and the Cold War that followed, when trading weapons to allies became an important tool of policy. This is also the case in today’s setting, where arms from foreign nations (allies) flow into conflict regions.

The problem is that the international trade in conventional arms, especially that of Small Arms and Light Weapons, can lead to human rights abuses and violations of humanitarian law. These results are not only caused by trade in illegal arms, but also by the arms trade which flows through legal channels. It was only after the end of the Cold War that the regulation of international trade in conventional arms was put back on the agenda of the international community.

Arms Trade Treaty

The adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty is a result of a campaign launched by civil society organizations in 2003. The UN started the decision-making process of a legally binding instrument that would regulate and control arms trade, in 2006 (resolution 61/89). On 2 April 2013, the ATT was adopted by a large majority in the United Nations General Assembly. At the moment 130 states have signed the treaty, 61 states have ratified the treaty and 3 states voted against it at the UN. As one of the world’s largest exporters, the United States signed the treaty, but has not yet ratified it. The ATT is heavily criticized by the US Senate.

The new treaty covers international trade in conventional weapons from small arms to battle tanks, combat aircraft and warships. According to the Arms Control Association, the Treaty requires all state-parties to adopt basic regulations for the flow of weapons across international borders. It prohibits arms transfer to states if the transfer would violate obligations under measures adopted by the United Nations Security Council acting under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations. It also requires states to assess the potential that the arms exported would contribute to or undermine peace and security.

The best known already existing arms treaty is the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). This treaty does not cover the international trade in for example Small Arms and Light Weapons.

‘Feel good treaty’

Critics say the Arms Trade Treaty will not disarm the world and will not immediately bring world peace. There are too many weapons across the globe and too many legitimate uses that governments (and others) can claim for them. Proponents of the treaty say the treaty will stem the flow of weapons into conflicts where they could be used to commit atrocities or attack civilians. It creates binding requirements for states to review cross-border arms transfer and to consider not only the economic and political implications of arms trade.

But, as with all international treaties, the success of the ATT will be in its enforcement and implementation, in countries willing to abide by it, and to hold other countries responsible for breaches. The treaty is a message to the international community and can be described as a historic breakthrough. To quote from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s statement:

“Ultimately, it attests to our collective determination to reduce human suffering by preventing the transfer or diversion of weapons to areas afflicted by armed conflict and violence and to warlords, human rights abusers, terrorists and criminal organisations.”

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