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Coordinating arms transfer and SALW control assistance: What role for the Arms Trade Treaty?

Coordinating arms transfer and SALW control assistance: what role for the Arms Trade Treaty?
European Union side event at the Arms Trade Treaty third conference of states parties, 12 September 2017. Photo: Ralf Schlesener / Control Arms / Wikimedia Commons.

The 2013 Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is the first international, legally binding instrument establishing common international standards for regulating the trade on conventional arms. The ATT also includes specific provisions on implementation assistance. These provisions (a) outline the shape and focus that this type of assistance could have, (b) encourage States Parties to either request or offer related support, and (c) foresee the creation of a Voluntary Trust Fund (VTF) to fulfill these objectives by assisting states parties that need legal or legislative assistance, institutional capacity building, and technical, material and financial assistance to implement the treaty.

The VTF was officially established in 2016. However, this fund is only one of the many mechanisms that states can currently use to seek support in ATT implementation or to otherwise strengthen their arms transfer or small arms and light weapons (SALW) controls. A number of activities had already been running before the adoption of the ATT, such as those part of the US Export Control and Related Border Security (EXBS) program or the NATO Trust Fund Mechanism projects.

Following the entry into force of the treaty, new sources of funding became available, such as the UN Trust Facility Supporting Cooperation on Arms Regulation (UNSCAR), which funds projects aimed at supporting conventional arms regulation—including the implementation of the ATT. In other cases, implementers expanded the scope of their existing activities so to specifically include ATT-focused assistance—as was done with the EU Partner-to-Partner (P2P) Export Control Programme. Since the end of 2013, this programme also included an EU ATT Outreach Project whose goal is to support the universalization and effective implementation of the ATT. Finally, other international instruments that include provisions on arms transfer and SALW controls and which also include assistance-related provisions—such as the 2001 UN Programme of Action on SALW (UNPOA)—create additional avenues for relevant efforts in this field.

The ATT specifically tasks its secretariat with facilitating ‘the matching of offers of and requests for assistance’ to implement the treaty. The volume and range of cooperation and assistance programmes that are currently taking place represents both an opportunity and a challenge for the secretariat as it seeks to fulfill this mandate. While there is a lot of potential to build upon past experiences and lessons learnt, there is also a concrete risk of inordinate duplication of efforts.

The goal of this piece is to provide an overview of the work that the VTF has conducted since 2016 and the challenges that it has encountered in its first two years of existence. It will then highlight how the ATT Secretariat has worked towards the mitigation of such risks and to avoid the risk of overlap with other relevant assistance work through cooperation with other major stakeholders—specifically the EU and the UN. Finally, it highlights some future challenges that will need to be overcome.


Two years of VTF: scope, challenges and recent developments

The VTF was established with the aim to ‘assist requesting States requiring international assistance to implement their Treaty obligations’. The fund, made of voluntary contributions from states parties or other entities, is administered by the ATT Secretariat which is assisted by a selection committee to choose the projects that will be funded. Only states can apply for funding. They can, however, rely on UN agencies, international organizations, or civil society organizations as their implementing partners. Notably, beneficiaries of these projects may be not only states parties to the ATT or countries that have signed the treaty, but also ‘other States having shown clear and unambiguous political commitment to accede to the ATT’. Since it was established, the VTF has gone through two funding cycles following the two calls for projects proposals opened in October 2016 and October 2017. The latest call for project proposals for a third cycle (2019) was issued in the fall of 2018 and has received 39 applications. A total of 24 projects, involving 18 different countries, were funded in 2017 and 2018 through the first two cycles and the majority of them were implemented in countries from Africa (see Figure 1). The region with the fewest projects to date is Asia which remains one of the regions with the lowest level of engagement with the treaty.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Number of ATT–VTF funded projects per region in 2017–2018.​​​

During these first two years the VTF encountered a series of challenges of both an administrative and political nature. As highlighted in the first report on the work of the VTF, some of these were related to the establishment of adequate administrative infrastructure to cope with the functioning of the fund. The poor quality of the format and contents of some of the applications received were also a cause of concern and a source of additional administrative workload. Finally, another substantive obstacle highlighted included the difficulty to assess the political commitment of non-signatory states applying to the VTF.

These, and other issues, were noted at the ATT’s third conference of states parties (CSP3) in September 2017 where states decided to strengthen the capacity of the VTF through the recruitment of an additional staff member in the secretariat. States parties also welcomed the proposal to launch ‘VTF Outreach Activities’ with the aim, inter alia, to promote the role of the fund as a tool to receive assistance to implement the ATT and provide guidance on how to design a proposal. Most recently, in order to improve the quality of the selection process, the second report on the work of the VTF recommended states parties to consider a preliminary ‘Guidance for the Selection Process’, which was positively noted during CSP4 in August 2018. The VTF administration is also currently considering the development of a ‘Guidance for VTF Project Evaluation’.


Preventing potential overlap with existing programmes

SIPRI’s mapping ATT-relevant assistance and cooperation database, provides information on assistance activities in the field of both arms transfer and SALW controls implemented since 2012. The goal of the database is to provide funders, activity implementers and partner states with an overview of the range of work carried out that is aimed at building state capacity relevant to ATT implementation. Consequently, it also aims to provide sufficient information that could avoid gaps in coverage and duplication of efforts. The website currently includes information on 516 activities implemented since 2012 in countries from East Asia and South East Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. The platform also allows implementers to directly submit information on their work, which, in the long-term, will contribute to transforming the database into a user-generated information tool that will provide a more comprehensive and up-to-date picture of the range of capacity building efforts in arms transfer and SALW control in all parts of the world.

According to SIPRI’s database, all of the 18 countries that have been beneficiaries of VTF projects have been involved in other assistance activities in the field of arms transfers or SALW controls and have also all been involved in at least one activity implemented in the framework of the EU ATT Outreach Project. Five of them were also involved in the EU ATT Outreach Project’s ‘roadmaps’ activities, which envisage the development of specific plans ‘to tailor assistance to national priorities and needs’. 17 were beneficiaries of activities funded by UNSCAR and all of them benefitted from at least one UNSCAR activity specifically focused on the ATT. [1]

This information indicates that there is a certain degree of geographical overlap between VTF-funded projects, activities under the EU ATT Outreach Project, and assistance supported by UNSCAR. However, in many cases there is limited information about what particular types of assistance were received by a state as part of a particular project. This limits the possibility to firmly conclude whether—and to what the extent—these activities overlapped with each other. In addition, the fact that two or more activities had the same focus or involved the same states does not necessarily suggest that they ‘overlap’ since activities can reinforce assistance previously provided or build upon past work. These numbers, nonetheless, show that—to the extent these assistance programmes have targeted the same countries—there is a need for coordination between the VTF and these two major assistance providers and there is an opportunity to build upon existing assistance and maximize the use of available resources.

In line with its mandate, the ATT Secretariat has regularly consulted with representatives of the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA)’s UNSCAR team and the implementers of the EU ATT Outreach Project, to avoid duplication of efforts and to seek possibilities of synergies. For example, the ATT Secretariat liaises with UNSCAR while pre-screening and short-listing the project proposals received. The ATT Secretariat has also confirmed that informal consultations on these issues are held with UNSCAR on the sidelines of international events, such as the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly First Committee. According to UNSCAR, such exchanges are not meant to interfere with the respective selection processes but rather ‘to flag any potential or latent issues which should be disclosed’ and to exchange information on complementing opportunities before the selection of the projects.[2] The ATT Secretariat also regularly connects with the implementers of the EU ATT Outreach Project to discuss applications and check on potential overlap. As explained by both the ATT Secretariat and the German Federal Office for Economic Affairs (BAFA)—as a representative of one of the EU ATT Outreach Project implementing agencies—this form of coordination usually takes place through email correspondence or informal meetings on the sidelines of ATT events. In April 2018, members of the ATT Secretariat have also attended a meeting of the EU Working Party on Conventional Arms Export (COARM)[3] to explore options to coordinate their respective work. The outcome of the consultations described above may well result in requests for clarifications from VTF applicants in case a risk of overlap is detected.

Informal arrangements for sharing information on funding projects are also in place between UNSCAR and the EU. BAFA has confirmed that in case of known cooperation between one of their partners and UNSCAR, they make an estimation of the possible level of duplication and reach out to other donors to avoid risks of duplication. UNSCAR has also informed that the list of its 2018–2019 projects was shared with the EU and that further ‘opportunities for cooperation with relevant EU activities would be explored’. On top of this, UNSCAR also obliges selected applicants to contact each other and other stakeholders (e.g. regional organizations and national authorities of recipient countries) to develop coordination plans jointly, with a view to avoiding duplication of similar activities in the same geographic and thematic scope.


Strengthening treaty implementation

So far, the ATT Secretariat has sought to fulfill its mandate by pursuing informal cooperation with major donors and assistance providers, such as UNSCAR and the EU, who have also strived to coordinate bilaterally. However, as noted above, the pool of assistance providers in the field of arms transfer and SALW controls is much wider. Moreover, new initiatives are regularly emerging. Perhaps the most notable of these is the UN’s recent plan to establish a dedicated trust fund to support governments’ actions on small arms control as part of the implementation of the UN Secretary General’s Disarmament Agenda. Therefore, although the coordination of efforts represents a positive element, the presence of a large—and possibly further expanding—number of assistance providers creates the need for a more systematic way to map all the actors involved and the activities implemented and exchange related information. The annual ATT conference of states parties, and the related preparatory meetings, represents a helpful platform as they offer the occasion to the wider pool of assistance implementers and beneficiary states to regularly discuss assistance-related matters both in the context of plenary discussions and side events. In addition, these and other forms of coordination could also benefit from—and build upon—the work that SIPRI carries out by collecting information of assistance that has been—or is currently being—implemented into its database mapping ATT-relevant assistance and cooperation activities.

All of this may well support the promotion of local ownership of assistance projects by making information on available sources of funding and assistance more accessible. Interested states should be supported in taking the lead in identifying their own needs, outlining suitable plans to address them and make the best use of these assistance offers. While this is already facilitated by the VTF, there is also further assistance available, such as that provided by the Small Arms Survey’s ACCESS project, which specifically supports states in such processes. Finally, effective coordination could also mean to reach out more systematically to certain areas of the world, such as East Asia and South-East Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, where—despite the need for effective conventional arms controls—both the level of engagement with the treaty and the amount of assistance received, has been very modest compared with other regions.



[1] This analysis is based on activities included in the database as per 25 March, 2019. Readers should be aware that the database does not claim to be comprehensive but illustrative, and there are likely to be many activities that are not included.

[2] Communication from UNSCAR to SIPRI, dated 19 March 2019.

[3] The Working Party on Conventional Arms Exports handles work concerning export controls for conventional arms. The working party also deals with engagement in outreach activities; establishment of political dialogue with non-EU countries; participation in the UN process concerning the Arms Trade Treaty.



Giovanna Maletta is a Senior Researcher and Acting Programme Director for the Dual-Use and Arms Trade Control Programme at SIPRI.