Global Arms Trade Treaty – a beginners’ guide: 50th ratification update

On 2 April 2013, after 20 years of determined lobbying and campaigning by Amnesty International and partner NGOs, the UN General Assembly voted decisively to adopt the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) text. Now the treaty is on the cusp of becoming international law which could change the lives of millions. 

Amnesty International’s arms expert Brian Wood explains how the uncontrolled flow of arms is ruining millions of lives and decimating entire communities, as well as why this treaty is so historic. 

How did the idea of the Arms Trade Treaty come about? 

The idea started in late 1993 in an Amnesty International office in central London, where three other UK NGO representatives and I developed ideas for a legal instrument to stop arms trading that contributes to human rights violations. 

In the 1920s and 1930s the imperial powers proposed an arms trade treaty but without any common rules for protecting human rights, so their efforts collapsed in the lead up to the Second World War. 

With help from lawyers at Cambridge and Essex Universities and from Nobel Peace Laureates, especially Oscar Arias, our NGO advocacy efforts spread from Europe to the Americas, attracting the support of John Kerry in the US Congress. 

From 2003 the civil society campaign initiated by Amnesty, Oxfam and IANSA, a network of hundreds of NGOs working on small arms, went increasingly global. The call for an Arms Trade Treaty or ATT with a “golden rule” to protect human rights began to be debated in the United Nations. 

What does the international arms trade look like now?

The trade details are often shrouded in secrecy, but recorded value of international transfers of conventional arms is approaching USD$100 billion annually; in 2010 it was around $80 billion, so it’s growing fast. 

And if you add on all the related services, including military and construction for example, it’s worth is of around 120 billion US dollars. 

At the moment there are around 40 countries with larger-scale defence production capabilities and another 60 or so countries manufacturing arms on a smaller scale – over half of the 193 UN member states make and supply weapons and military equipment. 

This trade in deadly or dangerous products is still not controlled strictly and carefully, so millions of people are getting killed, maimed and abused. 

So, how many people are dying each year due to arms?

It is estimated that roughly half a million people are killed every year with firearms. People are killed in the battlefield as well as by state repression and criminal gangs. 

Many other millions around the world die because they are being denied access to health care, water or food as they are trapped in conflicts fuelled by the poorly controlled flow of arms. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, it is estimated more than five million people died indirectly because of the armed conflict since 1998. 

And for every person who is killed in armed conflict and armed violence, we have to consider the many more people that are injured and tortured, abused, forcibly disappeared, taken hostage or otherwise denied their human rights at the point of a gun. 

The problem is absolutely massive and on-going as seen now in Syria, Iraq, Libya and South Sudan. Irresponsible arms trading can sooner or later in many parts of the world destroy every area of people’s lives and livelihoods. 

Who is particularly affected by the uncontrolled flow of arms?

Women are greatly affected in ways that often are invisible and not talked about very much. 

In Guinea, for example, we heard the story of a woman who was raped by a soldier while another one was holding a gun to her head. This sort of violence can happen on a massive scale. 

You can also see a disproportionate effect on children, young people and refugees. In some countries, children are recruited into the armed forces and to armed groups and forced to fight. 

Who is responsible for this situation?

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council — the United States of America, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom – are the world’s largest arms traders. Germany, Israel, Italy, Sweden, South Africa, Spain, Belgium and Ukraine are also large arms traders. 

The largest importers of arms include India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other countries in Asia and the Middle East. 

What about businesses, aren’t they responsible too? 

It’s true that most of the arms trade is carried out by commercial entities, by manufacturing and trading companies, military service providers, arms brokers and dealers as well as those who transport the arms and finance them. 

But the primary responsibility for the trade rests with governments who claim the right of self-defence and have a duty to protect their populations. Only states can regulate the trade through granting or refusing licenses, and only states can prohibit certain inhumane types of arms and impose arms embargoes and suspensions. 

The key problem is that the design and enforcement of arms trade laws have simply not kept pace with global arms markets, and the will by political leaders to address this has been sorely lacking. 

What is the Arms Trade Treaty and how can it make a difference?

The ATT is an international treaty that sets out for the first time robust global rules to stop arms going to human rights abusers. 

The ATT includes a number of rules to stop the flow of weapons, munitions and related items to countries when it is known they would be used to commit or facilitate genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or other serious violations of human rights. Each state must assess if there is a substantial risk that a proposed arms export to another country will contribute to serious human rights abuses, and if so those arms must not be sent. 

Is the Arms Trade Treaty international law? 

Nearly. To become legally binding, the treaty must first be ratified by 50 states. Over the past year, 119 states have signed the treaty. This week we have reached the magic 50 ratifications so the treaty will soon become international law. 

What is ratification? 

Ratification is when a state declares its consent to abide by the rules of a treaty, and this is done in two steps. Firstly, the state incorporates the rules of the treaty into its national laws, which is usually done after parliamentary approval. Secondly, it declares its consent to abide by the rules of the treaty internationally, by submitting official paperwork to the United Nations. 

What does ‘enters into force’ actually mean? 

This is when the rules of the treaty come into effect, and it becomes binding international law on all countries that have ratified the ATT. 

The ATT enters into force 90 days after its 50th ratification. Since this happened on 25 September 2014, the treaty will become international law on 25 December 2014. 

Once the treaty enters into force, the challenge will be to ensure proper implementation so that no state authorizes arms transfers to those committing crimes against humanity or war crimes, or turns a blind eye to dealers supplying arms likely to be used to commit serious human rights violations. 

What about those states that have yet to sign or ratify the ATT? 

The campaign doesn’t stop here. Amnesty International and its NGO partners are keeping up the pressure on states by exposing cases of blatantly irresponsible arms transfers and pressing governments to bring the ATT rules into their own national laws by ratifying the treaty. Amnesty International will also be ensuring that states effectively and robustly implement the ATT and will monitor how states do this. 

You can find out more about how you can help to pressure governments here

Have the world’s major arms exporters adopted the treaty in their law? 

Five of the top 10 arms exporters – France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK have already ratified the ATT.  While the USA is yet to ratify it has signed the treaty. There has been resistance to ratification from other major arms producers like China, Canada, Israel and Russia. 

While it’s important that all the world’s largest arms exporting countries are part of the treaty, it is important to stress that well over half of all states have already signed the ATT and over a quarter have ratified the treaty in little over a year, which is a fast pace for such a global treaty touching on security and human rights issues. Global civil society and champion governments will continue to pile on the pressure on other states to sign too, and it’s important that activists like you contribute to that as much as possible. 

How would it be possible to ensure governments will respect the treaty?

Under the treaty all governments must submit annual reports on their arms trading. They will meet regularly where they can put pressure on each other to find out whether they are acting responsibly. If they accuse each other of violating the treaty, they can submit to arbitration or mediation. So far the treaty does not have a system for independent verification, but the treaty can in time be strengthened through amendments. 

For the first time, the ATT will set an international standard that governments and civil society can use to hold accountable those who sell weapons or munitions irresponsibly. It will also prevent the flow of arms into places plagued by human rights abuses by closing the many loopholes arms dealers and unscrupulous governments use to navigate with impunity. 



Trade data is kept secret but thought to account for perhaps five per cent of the global conventional arms trade.

Key customers

Often developing countries with poor human rights records, including Algeria, Angola, Bangladesh, DRC, Guinea, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, Libya, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Sudan, Sudan and Zimbabwe. 

Irresponsible arms transfers

China supplies ammunition and small arms to Sudan, where it is used by security forces and militia in Darfur, as well as to South Sudan and to the DRC. Supplied rockets and anti-vehicle mines to Libya under Colonel Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi, and ammunition, rocket-propelled grenades, mortar bombs and mortar launchers to Zimbabwe.


The value of France’s conventional arms exports ranks third to fifth globally alongside the UK and Germany – behind the USA and Russia. 

Key customers

Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Greece, other NATO partners, Middle Eastern, North African and other Francophone countries. France and Russia started co-operating on defence and naval equipment.

Irresponsible arms transfers

France is generally supportive of strict arms transfer criteria, but has supplied arms to countries where serious human rights violations could be committed, including Libya under al-Gaddafi, Egypt, Israel and Chad, and Syria between 2005 and 2009.


Russia is the world’s second largest arms trader by value of exports, and an influential ATT negotiator. 

Key customers

India, Syria, Algeria, Myanmar, Venezuela, Sudan and many African states. Having fallen behind in key technologies, it is now seeking sophisticated partners and new markets. 

Irresponsible transfers

Ten per cent of all Russian arms exports are believed to go to Syria, making it Syria’s largest arms supplier. Transfers include anti-tank missiles and MIG jet fighters. Russia supplies helicopter gunships to Sudan, used to attack civilians in Darfur and Southern Kordofan. Russia is now positioning itself to be a major exporter of military equipment to Egypt. According to press reports, Egypt has signed a deal for $US2 billion worth of military equipment, including military helicopters. The deal, reportedly finalised during General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s state visit to Moscow in February, is said to be financed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.


The value of the UK’s conventional arms exports consistently ranks third, fourth or fifth globally alongside France and Germany. 

Key customers

The USA, India, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, other NATO partners, other countries in the Middle East, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. 

Irresponsible transfers

The UK generally supports strict criteria for arms transfers, but has supplied arms to countries with a high risk of serious human rights violations, including Sri Lanka. UK national legislation is being reviewed following evidence that it supplied small arms, ammunition, munitions and armoured vehicle equipment to Libya under al-Gaddafi, small arms to Bahrain and law enforcement equipment to Yemen.


The USA is by far the world’s largest arms trader, accounting for around 30 per cent of conventional arms transfers in terms of value. Its position on the ATT is therefore key.

Key customers

The USA supplies arms to more than 170 countries. It has restricted arms transfers to Myanmar, China, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe and countries subject to UN arms embargoes. However, it has supplied arms to countries including Iraq, Israel, Sri Lanka, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen, where they have risked being used for serious human rights violations. 

Irresponsible transfers

The USA is Egypt’s and Israel’s main arms supplier, selling major weapons as well as small arms, ammunition and chemical agents for riot control, despite the violent crackdown on protesters. The USA also supplied Yemen with small arms, chemical agents and armoured vehicles, and Bahrain with small arms. It provided Colombia’s security forces with arms, military aid and training, despite their persistent human rights violations.