The long journey towards an Arms Trade Treaty

Sometimes a simple but potentially revolutionary idea can change the world for the better.

But it often takes a crisis to galvanize people to take action.

This was the case two decades ago when the worldwide civil society movement – led by Amnesty International – took on the immense challenge of regulating the global trade in conventional arms.

For many world leaders, the 1991 Gulf War in Iraq drove home the dangers of an international arms trade lacking in adequate checks and balances.

When the dust settled after the conflict that ensued when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s powerful armed forces invaded neighbouring Kuwait, it was revealed that his country was awash with arms supplied by all five Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council.  Several of them, it emerged, had also armed Iran in the previous decade, fuelling an eight-year war with Iraq that resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths.

The crisis of legitimacy in the conventional arms trade triggered a paradigm shift, says Brian Wood, Amnesty International’s Head of Arms Control and Human Rights: “It was big series of scandals at the time. The Permanent Five Security Council members and the other major players had no choice but to do something to regain confidence from world opinion.”

Transcending the old idea

Political leaders had already tried in vain in previous decades to rein in the poorly regulated global arms trade.

In 1919, horrified by the slaughter of the First World War, the newly formed League of Nations tried to restrict and reduce international arms transfers of the type that had led to death and destruction on a massive scale during the war.

But those efforts in the 1920s and 1930s to establish a treaty were variously designed on the basis of old colonial rivalries – and soon collapsed. Countries with empires and ambitions returned to massive re-arming through production and transfers, leading to another catastrophic global war that erupted in 1939.

In the wake of the Second World War’s atrocities and loss of life on a scale never before seen, the emerging international community established three pillars – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Charter, and the Geneva Conventions. These were a huge step forward for global human rights and humanitarian standards.

Like the League of Nations Covenant, the UN Charter had a mandate given to the Security Council to establish a system for the regulation of arms, but for more than 60 years the Security Council never even proposed a system for the conventional arms trade, despite the trade continuing to grow and fuel the very violations the three new global standards were meant to curtail.

Although the Cold War brought with it new multilateral controls over the movement of arms across borders, such limitations were outside the UN and part of the calculated global game of chess between NATO members on the one hand and Warsaw Pact countries on the other. Any concern for the human rights or humanitarian impact of arms transfers was again notably absent.

But a series of shocking crises in the late 1980s and 1990s – the first Gulf War, the Balkans conflicts, the 1994 Rwanda genocide and conflicts in Africa’s Great Lakes region, West Africa, Afghanistan and in Central America amongst others – drove home the urgency of moving forward with attempts to control the global arms trade.

The International Code of Conduct

As these crises were kicking off, NGOs and lawyers became increasingly concerned about the serious human rights and humanitarian impact of irresponsible arms transfers.

Wood recalls how in 1993 and 1994, he and representatives from three other NGOs met in an Amnesty International office in central London to draw up a draft legally binding International Code of Conduct for international arms transfers – for tactical reasons aimed initially at European Union (EU) member states.

The EU – shocked by the post-Gulf War revelations about transfers of weapons and munitions – had just agreed to a list of eight criteria for arms exports. This was followed by a set of principles on arms exports agreed in the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in November 1993. But the problem with the EU guidelines and OSCE principles, Wood explains, was that the criteria were entirely voluntary, while what NGOs were after was a set of legally binding standards to strictly control arms transfers.

Joined by representatives from Saferworld, the World Development Movement and the British-American Security Information Council – he sought the help of legal experts to come up with guidelines rooted in international human rights and humanitarian law.

Amnesty International Sections across Europe began promoting the idea to their political leaders. Then Amnesty International USA and other US-based NGOs caught wind of the idea and the advocacy effort spread across the Atlantic, where it piqued the interest of former Costa Rican President and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Óscar Arias.

Arias invited fellow Nobel Peace Laureates including Mikhail Gorbachev and Amnesty International to attend the “State of the World Forum” he convened in San Francisco in October 1996. Wood and Susan Waltz, then head of Amnesty International’s governing body, the International Executive Committee (IEC), thrashed out a revised International Code of Conduct with Oscar Arias and several other NGOs.

Then – for the first time to a global audience – a group of Nobel Peace Laureates and NGOs began to articulate their joint vision of an entirely new kind of global agreement to control arms transfers so as to “keep the means of repression and violence out of the hands of dictators and abusers of human rights”.

That vision – rooted in the simple idea thought up by a few dedicated people in Amnesty International and other NGOs in the London office in 1993 – kicked off years of efforts to lobby political leaders about the legally binding Code, who in turn led legislative measures on arms trade controls.

John Kerry was a notable supporter of the Code idea in the US Congress and along with Cynthia McKinney and others he battled over two years to win a law in 1998 mandating the US President to negotiate an international agreement.

Also in 1998, the EU established a Code of Conduct on Arms Exports. According to Wood, the Nobel Laureates were disappointed the EU Code was only voluntary, but it was the first time a detailed set of arms export criteria were established relevant to international legal, including human rights, obligations.

Taking it to the world stage

In November 2000, Arias and Amnesty International – joined by Nobel Peace Laureates Desmond Tutu, José Ramos Horta and others, as well as a stronger group of NGOs – asked Costa Rica’s UN Mission to circulate a revised draft of the Code of Conduct to all UN Member States.

“At the outset, we were laughed at by the disarmament experts, but in Amnesty International we know that all challenging ideas to change the world by creating new treaties will first be dismissed”, Wood recalls.

According to Wood, the response from sympathetic diplomats was that additional work was needed to shore up the legal provisions contained in the draft and that many States were by then involved in a UN process to establish a Programme of Action on small arms only, rather than a treaty on the trade of all conventional arms.

And so he convinced the core group of NGOs – joined several years earlier by Oxfam UK and Ploughshares of Canada – to seek further help from legal scholars to sift through the canon of international law, including human rights and humanitarian law, to refine the treaty proposal.

The result was a revised “Framework Convention on International Arms Transfers”, now fortified with some 200 references to international standards relating to arms transfers. Amnesty International and partner Nobel Peace Laureates and NGOs began contacting friendly governments to promote the new Convention proposal in 2001.

“On one level, the concept of the treaty was relatively simple,” Wood recalls. “It was building on states’ existing legal obligations. The whole body of international law – including international humanitarian and human rights law – were embedded in what was a relatively short text. A core group of governments began to take it very seriously.”

Amnesty International and Saferworld invited government representatives to discuss the new draft – including at a key meeting held in 2001 at Cambridge University’s Lauterpacht Centre for International Law held under the auspices of the legal scholar Daniel Bethlehem.

Subsequent meetings were held in Finland – an emerging ally on the draft treaty – and Tanzania. Each time the number of governments grew, says Wood: “It began to spread, and we began to cascade the international discussion about this idea.”

Control Arms campaign

Once the concept had attracted serious interest from progressive governments, the core group of NGOs hatched a plan to roll out the idea to a much wider audience. The wider coalition of NGOs working on small arms realized that the Programme of Action would not have a sufficient human rights and humanitarian impact without a treaty to control the trade.

In October 2003, Amnesty International, Oxfam and the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) launched the Control Arms campaign for a global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in more than 100 countries.

Activists around the world promoted the world’s first Million Faces online photo petition and engaged in innovative public stunts aimed at pressing governments to introduce the draft treaty at the UN. The public events included a camel caravan across the Sahel in Mali, elephants in India, and a Control Arms-branded longboat which won the annual boat festival in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh.

The draft treaty gradually gathered steam, with the number of supportive governments swelling from just a handful in 2001 to more than 50 by early 2005.

Back in London, the public pressure also began to pay off, and in September 2004 then-Foreign Minister Jack Straw made a surprise announcement that the UK would support the draft ATT.

Wood recalls the reaction overseas: “I remember that day – it was electrifying because Jack Straw’s speech was reported to EU governments we were with in The Hague, and many of them had no idea that he was going to make this announcement. It was like a political bomb. It had been tough going, but once we got the UK on board, France and the rest of the EU all joined in, and the number of countries began to spread rapidly in Africa and Latin America.” 

Back to the UN

By mid-2006, the UN in New York was abuzz with talk about the Arms Trade Treaty, says Wood.

That June, Oxfam and other Control Arms members delivered the “Million Faces” campaign to then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, calling on leaders to back the treaty.

The next month, seven countries – Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan, Kenya and the UK – circulated a “Towards an Arms Trade Treaty” resolution in the General Assembly. When it came up for a vote at the UN’s First Committee on Disarmament in October 2006, 153 states backed it. While several large arms exporting states like Russia and China abstained, there was only one state against –the USA under the Bush administration.

On the basis of that vote, a formal UN process began to seek member states’ views on the proposed ATT. Meanwhile, Control Arms campaigners organized a “People’s Consultation” in scores of countries, urging political leaders to speak out in favour of the treaty. More than 100 states responded, and two UN groups were formed to carry on the debate on the text.

By late 2009, political backing for the treaty had grown sufficiently to introduce a new UN General Assembly resolution. In October that year, the USA – now under the Obama administration – announced that the treaty would have US backing as long as the final vote would be held on the basis of consensus, meaning that all states had to agree.

Two months later, more than three quarters of UN member states voted in favour of opening the formal treaty negotiation process – including five preparatory meetings over the course of 2010 and 2011, ending in four weeks of final negotiations in July 2012.

The devil in the details

Over the course of that process, clear negotiating positions have emerged among the Permanent Five UN Security Council members – China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA – as well as other states.

Some, such as the USA have wanted to narrow the scope of the treaty by excluding ammunition like bullets. Others, like Russia, are fine with all the items and activities covered in the treaty text, but have made it clear they do not want human rights and humanitarian standards to play a role in controlling arms transfers.

Regional and sub-regional alliances and enmities also play a role, so the process of diplomatic trade-offs is often complex and time-consuming, says Wood.

Time-wasting by what he calls the ATT’s sceptics was part of the reason the July 2012 talks failed to end in agreement.

Final negotiations

At the final UN talks in March, three of the hard-line sceptics – Iran, North Korea and Syria – staged a last ditch attempt to block a deal.  The deeply cynical move stopped the treaty from being passed by consensus but it could not halt the momentum.  

Governments that had advocated hard for the treaty acted swiftly to ensure a vote could take place at the UN General Assembly – where only a majority was needed for the text to be adopted. 

On 2 April 2013 diplomats returned to the UN refreshed after the long Easter weekend. A mere five days since the negotiations had come to a dramatic end the treaty went to the vote at the General Assembly. The names of each country in favour appeared in green on large screens in the vast hall. The screens were awash with green – 156 states voted to adopt a treaty with strong human rights protections. Applause rippled throughout the chamber, history had been made. 

“The global arms trade is hugely dominated by about 20 exporting countries and a handful of very large import-dependent countries, with the USA, EU Member States, Russia and China at the top. So to get that balance right and ensure a robust treaty was never easy, but that’s what we’ve achieved,” Wood says.

When the landmark treaty opened for states to sign on 3 June, countries from every region in the world signed at the first opportunity. Argentina was first and 66 others followed that same day – including France, Germany and the UK– three of the world’s major arms exporters. Many more states pledged to sign up soon, including the USA – by far the world’s largest arms producer and exporter.

Wood acknowledges that Amnesty International, its partners in civil society and progressive governments still have an enormous amount of work to do to ensure enough states ratify and robustly implement the treaty so it really does curb irresponsible and illegal arms transfers. 

But for Wood the major achievement of this whole process – this long journey towards an ATT – has been the acceptance by most governments now that arms trade controls should be aligned with states’ international obligations including their human rights obligations.

“The originality of the Arms Trade Treaty idea was that – for the first time in history – states would have to consider international human rights and humanitarian law, as well as international criminal law, as a basis on which to decide whether an arms transfer across borders should go ahead. That is the kernel of the idea of the ATT, and it came from a few of us in a little room in Amnesty. And that principle remains at the heart of the treaty,” he says. 

“And it just goes to prove that if ordinary people like me, Amnesty International members around the world and our partners in civil society can think of a potent idea that’s worth fighting for, and stick at the concept and develop the proposal to get traction from political leaders, we really can make a difference.”

This article originally appeared on 27 March 2013 and was updated on 5 June 2013.