Limiting the Means of Warfare: The 2013 Arms Trade Treaty


There is a good deal of misinformation available concerning the Arms Trade Treaty. An online search brings up a blizzard of references, not all of them accurate. There are those who say that the purpose of the treaty is to bring about a world-wide ban on gun ownership. This is clearly untrue.

The Arms Trade Treaty entered into force on Dec. 24, 2014, ninety days after the 50th nation ratified it. The Treaty was passed by the UN General Assembly on April 2, 2013 by a margin of 154 to 3 with 23 nations abstaining. The three “No” votes came from Iran, Syria and North Korea. The United States, along with all the other NATO nations, voted in favor of the treaty. This was followed by 125 nations signing the treaty, again including all NATO allies, save one – Canada.

The stated goal of the treaty is to “…prevent and eradicate the illicit trade in conventional arms and to prevent their diversion to the illicit market, or for unauthorized end use and end users, including in the commission of terrorist acts….” In other words, to keep conventional weapons out of the hands of organized crime and those who would use them to commit war crimes or acts of terrorism. The treaty focuses on the international arms trade and only international arms trade of:

(a) Battle tanks;

(b) Armored combat vehicles;

(c) Large-caliber artillery systems;

(d) Combat aircraft;

(e) Attack helicopters;

(f) Warships;

(g) Missiles and missile launchers; and

(h) Small arms and light weapons.

It also applies to components that can be assembled into these weapons, and to ammunition for their use. A spokesman for Oxfam highlighted the importance of including ammunition: “[W]hile arms are often recirculated time and time again, and we see this particularly in conflicts in Africa – without ammunition, they are a lot less lethal. We have seen in some conflicts that the supply of ammunition is literally the fuel that keeps the conflict going.”

What does the treaty require a State Party to do? Basically, it “sets out standards that States must apply when authorizing transfers of arms, ammunition, and parts and components.” The treaty prohibits the transfer of weapons in violation of arms embargoes or other international agreements. A State Party must not authorize the transfer of arms, for example, if it knows that they will be utilized to violate the Geneva Conventions. It also prohibits the transfer of weapons, ammunition, or weapons components if the State “…has knowledge at the time of authorization that the arms or items would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians protected as such, or other war crimes as defined by international agreements to which it is a Party.”

A country cannot transfer these items if it knows that the use of the weapons would be illegal; a country must also assess the risk the weapons will be used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law or human rights law and it must deny arms exports “if the risk is overriding.”

A State Party also must maintain records concerning the export of listed weapons and is encouraged to keep records of imports and transshipments. Cooperation with other nations is strongly encouraged. The treaty also allows for assistance to States Parties in adhering to the treaty.

The U.S. State Department states that current U.S. law already meets the requirements of the treaty. This is important because in terms of U.S. practice, the treaty has no effect, because the United States has not ratified it. The mistaken belief by some that the Arms Trade Treaty sets out to ban gun ownership likely played a role. But, as the State Department indicates: : “The Treaty also reaffirms the sovereign right of any State to regulate conventional arms within its own territory according to its own legal or constitutional system. Nothing in the Arms Trade Treaty is inconsistent with the rights of U.S. citizens, including those protected by the Second Amendment.”

Like most treaties, the Arms Trade Treaty is a compromise. At the time of its passage a number of representatives from countries that voted in favor of the treaty rose to speak about its shortcomings. The comments from the representatives of Lebanon, Colombia, and Cote d’Ivoire, among others, make for an interesting reading.

As with many efforts to reduce human suffering, the Arms Trade Treaty is but one step in a long journey. In an October 2014 address to the UN the ICRC stated, “At the heart of the Treaty is the recognition of each State’s duty to respect and ensure respect for international humanitarian law. Faithfully and consistently applied, the Treaty will ensure that weapons do not end up in the hands of those who would use them to commit war crimes or serious violations of human rights law.”

One response to “Limiting the Means of Warfare: The 2013 Arms Trade Treaty

  1. Pingback: Weekly IHL Update | Humanity in the Midst of War·

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