The Flemish Peace Institute welcomes Arms Trade Treaty

On 2 April 2013, the UN Member States adopted the International Arms Trade Treaty with a large majority during the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York. This puts an end to years of negotiations: a historic moment for the regulation of global arms trade. The Flemish Peace Institute is satisfied that there is an international Treaty with broad support, but regrets the abstention of major players Russia and China.

The UN Arms Trade Treaty has been approved, but without Russia and China.

On Tuesday 2 April, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the 'Arms Trade Treaty'. This concerns the rules for trade in conventional arms such as small and light weapons, but also tanks, combat aircraft or vessels of war. At a conference in March 2013, the 193 Member States of the UN attempted in vain to reach a consensus about such a Treaty. At this time, the consensus was ultimately blocked by Iran, North Korea and Syria. Subsequent to this, the draft Treaty was referred to the General Assembly, where it was adopted by a large majority (154 countries for, 3 against and 23 abstentions). On the one hand, major arms exporters such as the US, France and Germany voted in favour, but two other arms exports giants, Russia and China, did not approve of the Treaty and abstained. They are respectively number 2 and 5 of the top 5 largest arms exporters in the world. India, Venezuela, Sudan, Cuba and Egypt, among others, also refused to support the Treaty which was on the table.

The first global agreements concerning conventional arms trade

"The Treaty is important because it imposes global standards against which arms exports must be tested, such as the risk of violations of International Humanitarian Law or crimes against humanity", says Sara Depauw, researcher at the Flemish Peace Institute. Attention was also paid to the danger of diversion and undesirable end-use of arms, gender-based violence and violence against children. This final aspect is close to the heart of Belgium – which at various times has pleaded for attention to be paid to child soldiers. The Treaty describes the types of arms and activities which shall be controlled, it imposes a reporting obligation for arms trade on the UN, and provides for collaboration between UN Member States to reinforce this control. The Arms Trade Treaty has a limited impact on European arms trade. EU legislation on arms trade already goes further than what has now been achieved on a global scale. "This is why, in addition to the European standards, it was important to also agree on global minimum standards which would apply to all countries", Depauw concludes.

The Peace Institute is satisfied, but regrets the abstention of some major players

Tomas Baum, Director of the Peace Institute, is first of all satisfied that the Treaty has been adopted and refers to the large majority that approved the Treaty. "This Treaty will hopefully curtail the worst excesses of uncontrolled arms trade", says Baum. "In any case, it makes countries aware of the importance of controlling arms exports. Furthermore, Member States will now have to be more accountable internationally if they violate certain criteria." According to the Peace Institute, the Treaty could have been better and it also views the text more as a starting point. "Vague language leaves much room for interpretation, the criteria concerning human rights are not strict enough and the rules for transparency are inadequate." In addition, it is unfortunate that no agreement was reached in consensus and that superpowers Russia and China currently do not support the Arms Trade Treaty. This weakens the Treaty and makes its global impact uncertain. Furthermore, it remains to be seen to what extent member countries will subordinate their economic and strategic interests to the rules of the Treaty. "Syria is a painful example," Baum points out. "Russia and Iran arm the regime, various Gulf states arm the Islamic rebels, and EU Member States doubt about arming the secular rebels. It remains to be seen if the Treaty can influence a situation like that."

Background: more than 10 years of negotiations about an Arms Trade Treaty

The initial ideas for a global arms trade treaty date from 1997 when a few Nobel Prize Laureates pleaded for an international code of conduct for the sale of arms. The UN took the lead starting in 2001. An international coalition of NGOs negotiated in diplomatic circles and campaigned for years on end. It was finally decided to negotiate to the finish at a conference in July 2012: for four weeks they tried to reach common global agreements. A compromise proposal was under discussion, but the US refused to pull the trigger in the run-up to the presidential elections, and was followed in this regard by superpowers Russia and China, among others. The UN General Assembly, however, did not want to lose the momentum and decided to continue the negotiations at a new UN conference between 18 and 28 March 2013, based upon the compromise proposal of July 2012. This conference, however, also ended at an impasse, this time blocked by North Korea, Syria and Iran.

Referred to the UN General Assembly, on 2 April 2013 the Arms Trade Treaty was approved by a large majority. The text is now on the way to Secretary General Ban Ki Moon who will present it to all UN Member States for signing and ratification. The Treaty will only enter into force once 50 countries have effectively signed and ratified it.

"We have international standards regulating everything from t-shirts to tomatoes. There are international regulations for furniture. That means there are common standards for the global trade in armchairs, but not the global trade in arms. Families and communities around the world have paid a heavy price."

- VN Secretaris-Generaal Ban Ki Moon, 18 maart 2013 -