The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Arms Trade Treaty: Why We Need It

Posted in Internal Conflicts and Human Security by NTSblog on July 12, 2012

Delegates from 193 UN member states have gathered in New York since 2 July 2012 to attend a historic UN Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty. The month-long conference aimed to establish an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) to regulate the export, import and transfer of conventional weapons. Considered a potentially ground-breaking “humanitarian treaty”, the ATT is really about arms transfer management. It would require ratifying countries not to authorised arms transfer if it is likely to be used to violate human-rights, undermine peace, prolong conflicts, or, if it is likely to be diverted to the black markets. It would also require them to publish their sales yearly and register arms brokers.

The conference is proof that the international community’s attitudes toward conventional weapons has changed. This category of weapons has long remained at the sidelines of arms control agreements due in large part to the long-standing preoccupations with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) which is ‘chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons capable of a high order of destruction or causing mass casualties’. This preoccupation resulted in the establishment of a number of arms control treaties such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) etc. Nothing of this kind existed for conventional weapons. The few existing mechanisms such as arms embargoes are fraught with limitations. A study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) found that arms embargoes that have been introduced since 1990 have had limited impact on both arms flows to and the behaviour of embargoed targets. More recently, Oxfam estimated that between 2000 and 2010, and despite the 26 UN, regional, and multilateral arms embargoes in force during this period, USD2.2 billion worth of arms and ammunition was imported by countries under arms embargoes. A case in point is Syria. Despite an embargo, it was still able to import USD168 million worth of arms in the months before it began a crackdown on opposition activists. This, coupled with the attempted export of attack helicopters to Syria by Russia in June heightened the need for stricter international standards on arms transfers.

Conventional weapons are the primary or sole tools of violence in armed conflicts. Although they by themselves do not cause the conflicts in which they are used, they exacerbate and increase their lethality. Besides their use in armed conflicts, small arms and light weapons kill people on a daily basis in a variety of situations such as gang fights, homicides, suicides and random shootings. It was estimated that small arms and light weapons alone are responsible for the death of 500,000 people each year. It is therefore time to recognise conventional weapons as the “real WMDs” warranting the same level of regulations as nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The conference on the Arms Trade Treaty thus represents an important move towards that direction. Establishing international standards on trade in conventional weapons through the Arms Trade Treaty could help curtail irresponsible arms sales or its transfer. This would enable the peaceful resolution of armed conflicts that are sustained by large scale, unregulated proliferation of conventional weapons.

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