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The state of the Arms Trade Treaty: Advancing efforts on international assistance and illicit diversion

The state of the Arms Trade Treaty: Advancing efforts on international assistance and illicit diversion
Kandahar weapons cache, 1 March 2011. Photo: ISAF Public Affairs/The JIDA/Flickr.

The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) entered into force in 2013 and aims to promote a more transparent, responsible and better regulated global arms trade. On Friday 24 August the ATT’s Fourth Conference of States Parties (CSP4) concluded in Tokyo after five days of constructive deliberations. The final day did see unexpected last-minute differences over whether the UN Development Programme (UNDP) should continue to administer the sponsorship programme that enables participation at CSPs by states and NGOs from the developing world or – as was eventually decided – transfer responsibility to the ATT Secretariat. However, the conference was otherwise largely free of tension with states agreeing a detailed outcome document that lays out a clear programme of work in the run up to CSP5, which is due to take place 26–30 August 2019 under the Presidency of Ambassador Jānis Karlins of Latvia.


Challenges for the Arms Trade Treaty

Despite the positive atmosphere in Japan there are significant challenges in the road ahead for the ATT. The proportion of states parties making submissions to the Treaty’s two reporting instruments – on Treaty implementation and arms transfers – continues to fall. Meanwhile, the failure of many countries to pay their assessed contributions on time means that the gap between the Treaty’s running costs and the funds actually provided by states continues to rise. If these trends continue, they will undermine both the credibility of the ATT and the ability of the ATT Secretariat to carry out its work. Moreover, substantive discussions about particular arms transfers and whether or not they were in line with the Treaty’s provisions were – as at past CSPs - largely absent in Tokyo. Creating a forum where these questions can be raised and addressed was always one of the main aims of the NGOs that supported the creation of the ATT.

Another well-noted concern is the failure of key arms exporters and suppliers to sign the Treaty. These include Russia and China – the second and fifth largest arms exporters during 2013-2017 – as well as four of the five largest arms importers: India, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and China. Of these states, China took part in CSP4 as an observer state but the others did not attend. On the positive side, the number of states joining the Treaty continues to rise, though at a slower pace than in previous years. The ATT currently has 95 states parties and Brazil and Cameroon are due to join them in the near future.

Although concentrated in Europe, Africa and Latin America, the group of ATT states parties still covers all geographic regions and includes both arms exporters and importers. These states’ specific arms-trade related priorities and concerns vary enormously. While some are concerned with the impact of arms acquisitions on their region’s military balance, others are focused on transfers of small arms to criminal gangs or rebel groups. While this breadth of interest might limit the potential for detailed substantive discussions on key issues, it also allows for a sharing of perspectives and experiences in different areas. At CSP4, this was clearly apparent with regards to one of the main themes of discussion: that of providing and receiving international assistance to strengthen ATT implementation.


International assistance for implementation

Since the entry into force of the ATT there have been a wide range of assistance activities launched that are aimed at helping states to implement the Treaty. These include the many projects supported by the ATT Voluntary Trust Fund (VTF) and the UN Trust Facility Supporting Cooperation on Arms Regulation (UNSCAR) as well as those carried out under the EU’s P2P Export Control Programme. Among other things, these projects have involved providing training for licensing and customs officials, assisting with drafting national legislation, and the provision of technical equipment – like software or computers – for record-keeping. A crucial function of the ATT’s annual CSPs is bringing together the different stakeholders so that – during the plenary discussions, side-events and bilateral meetings – they can discuss past and upcoming projects, plan future work, and promote good practices in the planning and implementing of activities.

As the discussions at CSP4 underlined, success in international assistance work involves identifying states’ needs, designing activities that address these needs effectively, and then implementing the activities in a way that creates clear and long-term benefits. Another important component is ensuring that work done builds on past experience, that – where possible – it brings together groups of states that share common challenges, and that its results are available for others to draw upon. SIPRI’s database of ATT-relevant cooperation and assistance activities – which was presented and discussed at a side event at CSP4 – is designed to facilitate this process. The database currently contains details of over 450 activities aimed at building state capacity, raising awareness or providing technical assistance in areas relevant to arms transfer and Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) controls. With funding from UNSCAR and the UK Government, SIPRI is expanding the database to cover the Middle East and North Africa while also enabling and encouraging more implementers of activities to upload information about the work they’ve carried out to the site


ATT Assistance Database
The activity database of Arms Trade Treaty-relevant cooperation and assistance activities at:


Dealing with the diversion of arms

The benefits of bringing together such a diverse group of states was also apparent in relation to another key topic of discussion at CSP4: the diversion of arms to unauthorized end-users or end-uses. Raising diversion in a forum that includes both arms exporting and importing states has the potential to generate tension. A key reason is that discussions of diversion in the context of arms transfer controls naturally leads to the issue of re-export and re-transfer controls, whereby purchasing states agree to certain limitations on what they can do with the arms they import. These limitations can include a commitment to not export the arms to another destination or to only do so with the prior consent of the exporting state or – in some cases – to only use the arms for certain purposes. While such controls are an important tool in the fight against diversion they can also raise questions for some states about national sovereignty.

Despite diversion being potentially divisive, CSP4 was able to engage with the topic substantively – both during the plenary and at several side-events – thanks largely to the report of the inter-sessional Working Group on Treaty Implementation. This was one of three inter-sessional working groups – the others are on treaty universalization and reporting – that met in the run-up to CSP4 and produced reports for consideration and adoption at the conference. The report of the Working Group on Treaty Implementation included a detailed explanation of the various potential points of diversion in an arms transfer supply chain and the role that can be played by export, import and transit states in addressing them. Continuing this discussion in the context of the ATT has the potential to identify points where the interests of exporter and importer states align and to focus attention on increasing capacity in those areas. For example, having effective systems of stockpile management will enable an importing state to comply with re-export or re-transfer controls but also enables it to have better oversight of its national holdings.


Promoting responsibility in the global arms trade

Despite the challenges it faces the ATT has the potential to develop into the instrument for promoting restraint and responsibility in the global arms trade that its proponents originally intended it to be. The range of challenges facing the international community is wide and expanding. Many of these are fed by the irresponsible and illicit trade in arms. As such, the ATT has a clear role to play in addressing today’s threats. However, furthering this process will involve overcoming a number of significant obstacles and difficult questions in the run-up to CSP5. These obstacles include understanding why so many states are failing to fulfil their reporting commitments and taking steps to address those shortfalls. Another is increasing the rate of expansion in Treaty membership.

Another issue that states might be tempted to consider in the run-up to CSP5 is whether the current annual schedule of work continues to appropriately address the ATT’s aims and objectives. In particular, given that a well-functioning set of inter-sessional working groups has been established, states may begin to question whether the annual CSP needs to last for five days. By way of comparison the Wassenaar Arrangement – which also focuses on arms transfer controls and is supported by inter-sessional working groups – has a two-day annual plenary. However, the meeting in Tokyo also clearly demonstrated that one of the strengths of the ATT’s annual CSP is that it has created a forum where a diverse group of states and NGOs can meet to exchange views on important and complex arms transfer related issues. Any shortening of the length of the CSP should only be done if it can be ensured that this benefit – which allowed for such a rich discussion of international assistance and diversion in Tokyo – can be preserved.


Dr Mark Bromley is a Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Dual-Use and Arms Trade Control Programme.