Q&A: Global Arms Trade Treaty enters into force

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. On 24 December 2014, the treaty is now officially becoming international law, which could save the lives of millions.

 

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 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 and serious human rights violations. Each state must assess if there is an overriding risk that a proposed arms export to another country will be used for or contribute to serious human rights abuses, and if so those arms must not be sent.

 

What does the international arms trade look like now?

The trade details are often shrouded in secrecy but the value of international transfers of conventional arms is estimated to be approaching US$100 billion annually; in 2010 it was around US$72 billion. And if you add on all the related services, including military and construction for example, it’s worth around US$120 billion.

 

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 – more than 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.

 

How many people die each year due to arms?

It is estimated that roughly half a million people are killed every year with firearms; in the battlefield as a result of state repression and by 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 conflict and armed violence, we have to consider the many more who are injured and tortured, abused, forcibly disappeared, taken hostage or otherwise denied their human rights down the barrel of a gun.

 

The problem is absolutely massive and ongoing as seen now in Syria, Iraq, Libya and South Sudan. In many parts of the world, irresponsible arms trading can sooner or later 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.

 

Our researchers have collected stories from conflict affected countries all around the world where women have been raped at gunpoint. It is a widespread problem and in some countries this sort of violence happens 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 or 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 among 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, Pakistan, 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 – manufacturing and trading companies, military service providers, arms brokers and dealers as well as those who transport the arms and finance them.

 

Under the  UN “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework for Business and Human Rights and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, companies have a responsibility to respect all human rights independently of states’ own human rights obligations. 

 

However, in the case of the arms trade the primary responsibility falls to states which must 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 of political leaders to address this has been sorely lacking. This unfortunately also affects the responsibility of business actors. 

 

Is the Arms Trade Treaty international law?

Yes, as of 24 December 2014 it is. To become legally binding, the treaty first needed be ratified by at least 50 states. This happened on 25 September 2014, triggering the treaty’s entry into force 90 days later. So far the ATT has been ratified by 60 states, including five out of the top 10 arms exporters: UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy. In little more than a year, an impressive 130 states have signed the treaty, including 70 states that have signed but not yet ratified. Amnesty International will continue to push all governments to ratify or accede to the ATT and effectively implement the treaty as soon as possible.  

 

What is ratification and accession? 

Ratification is when a state declares its consent to abide by the rules of a treaty. Usually it is preceded by the signing of a treaty before the ratification process starts. The ratification process itself runs 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. Once both steps have been completed, it becomes a “state party” to the treaty.

 

Accession is another way of declaring consent to be bound by a treaty and is available for international treaties which have already entered into force. The ATT will be open for accession by any state after it enters into force on 24 December 2014. 

 

What does ‘enters into force’ actually mean?

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

 

Now that the treaty is entering into force, the challenge will be to ensure proper implementation so that no state authorizes arms transfers to those committing genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and serious violations of human rights law, or turns a blind eye to dealers supplying arms likely to be used to commit serious human rights violations. Amnesty International will work hard to make sure the ATT develops into an established global arms control regime that has human rights at its core.

 

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 or acceding to the treaty. Amnesty International will also be ensuring that states effectively and robustly implement the ATT and will monitor how states do this.

 

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 and Israel have yet to ratify, they have both signed the treaty. There has been resistance to ratification from other major arms producers like China, Canada 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 the pressure on other states to sign too.

 

Who will ensure that governments 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 used by arms dealers and unscrupulous governments.