By Denise Garcia


A first birthday that should not go unnoticed belongs to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). It already has almost 120 signatories, including the US and other major arms producers and exporters. After years of complex negotiations, is April 2013, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to adopt the treaty, which is the first legally binding step towards comprehensively regulating the trade of everything from small to large conventional weapons that are responsible for most of the killings and violence during conflict around the world. At that historic vote, 153 countries, including the US, voted for the treaty. Only three countries, Iran, North Korea, and Syria, voted against it. In other words: the support for the treaty from the majority of the world’s nations is clear.The ATT promotes transparency in the weapons trade, and is an arms transfers’ control and a trade agreement based upon the notion that arms transfers should not fuel instability and protracted conflicts around the world. It aims to make it harder for tyrants, gangs, warlords, and pirates to get a hold of arms.

To become international law, the treaty needs fifty ratifications; it already has 31 ratifications including the UK’s, also a major weapons producer. The US has a chance to take an important leadership role. If well implemented, the Treaty will make another crisis like the Syrian civil war more unlikely by shaming and delegitimizing irresponsible transfers of weapons to the ‘Putins’ and ‘Assads’ of the world. Since the worldwide movement towards the Treaty started to gain ground ten years ago, arms sales to nations accused of committing atrocities have already begun to be singled out as progressively illegitimate and no longer desirable in a densely interconnected world.

The Treaty is additionally a global mechanism for leveling the playing field regarding export controls. Throughout the negotiations, the United States viewed the Treaty as a way to bring other countries up to its own leading export control standards. In fact, manufacturers in several major arms producing countries are on board with efforts to make the arms trade a more legitimate business and support the ATT. The US has nothing to lose if it commits to the treaty with its ratification as America already is in compliance.

The speed which signatures and ratifications to the treaty were gathered signals that entry into force is likely to occur fast. The US has been unable to ratify due to opposition in the Senate. Some Senators argue that the ATT “undermines U.S. credibility, threatens the rights of gun owners, and impinges on U.S. sovereignty”. These arguments could not be more inaccurate. The ATT has no provision regarding civilian possession of arms. States are free to create their own laws regarding firearms possession by citizens. Therefore, there is nothing in the treaty that will threaten the Second Amendment of the US Constitution. The ATT is about transfers of arms to locations outside the US.

Recently, Congress has stopped President Obama from allocating funds for the implementation of the ATT. “Congress is committed to upholding the fundamental individual rights of Americans and rejects the ATT,” Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan): We will not be bound by the treaty and we will not fund its implementation.”

Two clarifications are warranted.  First, a country’s signature represents a potential commitment towards ratification. It is only after ratification by the requisite 50 nations that implementation takes place. Second, the US just released Presidential Policy Directive 27 (PPD-27), which is an updated U.S. arms export policy. The Policy states that the US’s “conventional arms transfer policy serves the following U.S. national security and foreign policy goals” including the following:

“Encouraging the maintenance and expansion of U.S. security partnerships with those who share our interests, and regional access in areas critical to U.S. interests.

Promoting regional stability, peaceful conflict resolution, and arms control. Combating transnational organized crime and related threats to national security.

Ensuring that arms transfers do not contribute to human rights violations or violations of international humanitarian law.”

These goals are exactly in line with the ATT’s aspirations. It is thus baffling that Senators would object to the Treaty. The US has nothing to lose with the Treaty, on the contrary: US arms exports policies are better, and more restrictive, than the Treaty’s provisions. US ratification would serve the US’ national interest because it would persuade other nations that arms sales have to be not only a legal, but also a legitimate business. US ratification would be a good outreach exercise. It would show real leadership by the US in these very troubling times where Russia – another major arms exporter– seems to think that it can act illegally under the mantle of its own version of international law.

The US should act now when it is the global leader in arms manufacturing. China, which played a constructive role during the negotiations, is a leading arms manufacturer. This is thus the perfect time to use the ATT to create US-Chinese goodwill over arms exports to counter the Russians. The US’s moment to set a good example is now and inspire others to the same.  Ratification would additionally reassure America’s allies that it is serious about lessening instability and conflict in the world. This is therefore the right moment for the US to show that it is committed to the international laws it helped invent and build since 1945. This is a pressing and unstable era, and if the US ratifies the ATT, it would demonstrate its willingness to continue leading the world and show that countries will benefit most from following the US model, not the Putin model.  It is time for the US to commit to the ATT.

Denise LaponACUNS Member Denise Garcia is the Sadeleer Research Faculty and Associate Professor at the Political Science Department and the International Affairs Program at Northeastern University in Boston. She is the author of Small Arms and Security – New Emerging International Norms, Routledge 2006/Reprinted 2009; and Disarmament Diplomacy and Human Security – Norms, Regimes, and Moral Progress in International Relations, Routledge 2011/reprinted in 2012. She is also a Board Member of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control.


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Photo Credit: MONUSCO/Sylvain Liechti