The independent resource on global security

Will the arms trade treaty be stuck in the past?

With two days of talks to go, the draft of an arms trade treaty (ATT) being negotiated in the UN looks dangerously likely to be a relic before it ever comes into force.

You cannot monitor the arms trade without regularly asking whether you are still looking for the right things in the right places, and using the right tools. Military technologies, and the ways they are produced and traded, are constantly changing and cannot be captured by one set of definitions and rules set in stone in 2013. With two days of talks to go, the draft of an arms trade treaty (ATT) being negotiated in the UN looks dangerously likely to be a relic before it ever comes into force. To avoid this, several elements are needed in the text before a treaty is signed.


A changing arms trade

The arms trade has changed radically in recent decades, and continues to evolve at a rapid pace. Modern conflicts are often fought with weapons that were marginal, or even unheard of, 20 years ago. International arms transfers are no longer about large shipments of finished weapons going directly from the producer to the recipient country. Furthermore, the latest SIPRI data shows that a number of emerging suppliers are gaining significant shares of the global arms market or particular niche areas—most strikingly illustrated by China’s recent entry into the world’s top five arms exporters. These changes have an important bearing on international arms transfers and efforts to prevent human suffering and the illicit arms trade.

As the ATT negotiating conference in New York approaches its conclusion, it is worrying that the reference points for the latest draft treaty text—presented by the president of the conference on Friday 20 March—remain rooted in the past. There is little encouragement for those parties looking for a treaty that can cope with the inevitable changes of the future. 

As a clear example, the scope of the treaty now looks as if it is to be fixed by the ‘the descriptions used in the United Nations Register on Conventional Arms (UNROCA) at the time of entry into force of this Treaty’. UNROCA’s scope is defined by items that were considered ‘indispensable for surprise attacks and large-scale offensive military actions’ at the end of the cold war, more than two decades ago. Despite some updating, UNROCA still excludes surface-to-air missiles, which represent a significant share of the international trade in major conventional weapons, as well as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) and a wide range of significant ‘force multipliers’, as well as—crucially—small arms and light weapons. 

New players 

For the past 20 years, the top five suppliers of major conventional weapons have been North American and European: the USA, Russia, Germany, France and the UK. SIPRI data showed how for many years the world divided neatly into arms exporters and arms importers. This was also the perceived reality during much of the ATT preparatory work and negotiations before the current conference.

The latest SIPRI data, released earlier this month, show how this is changing. China increased the volume of its exports by 162 per cent between the five-year periods 2003–2007 and 2008–2012 (SIPRI uses five-year periods rather than annual figures to reliably identify trends). This pushed China into the top five exporters for the first time since the cold war. Furthermore, at 162 per cent, the rate of increase in the volume of China’s arms exports was around 10 times that of the USA and 6 times that of Russia.

The data also indicates that Europe is declining in importance as an arms exporter: the UK increased its arms exports by only 1 per cent, while German exports declined by 8 per cent and French exports by 18 per cent. 

Although China’s rise as an exporter has been primarily driven by a significant increase in deliveries to Pakistan, it is also being recognized as a potential competitor to Russia and other European suppliers in North Africa, Asia and the Americas.

From importers to exporters 

For the past decade China has been one of the world’s major arms recipients. The five largest recipients of major conventional weapons during 2008–2012 were all located in Asia: India, China, Pakistan, South Korea and Singapore. 

Of particular importance for an ATT is that many of the deals that these states have concluded in recent years—and many of the deliveries counted by SIPRI as imports—related to items that are either being assembled or produced under licence by indigenous arms producers or to components for armoured vehicles, aircraft or ships being built in China, India or South Korea. 

Regional powers such as Brazil, South Africa and Turkey are also seeking to import technology to boost the ability of their arms industries to compete in international arms markets, and so too are many smaller states around the globe. Even established suppliers such as Russia have concluded deals for the licensed production and transfer of technology for building modern armoured vehicles, ships and UAVs, not only to equip national armed forces but also to boost national arms industries and their export capacities. 

What do these developments mean for an ATT?

These changes in the realities of the international arms trade have three key implications for an ATT. First, a number of UN member states have arms export ambitions that operate with very different practices and understandings of arms trade responsibilities to those of the more established suppliers. The ATT text should clearly set out the obligations to transfer arms responsibly. While the current draft includes several important elements in this regard, it is confusing on one key issue: how states will work to prevent diversion to the illicit market and unauthorized end-users and end-uses, one of the main objectives of an ATT.

Second, an ATT needs an anti-circumvention clause to close what looks like a significant loophole in the current draft treaty text. The treaty needs to ensure that states do not evade their obligations by supplying knock-down kits (kits containing the parts for weapon systems, for assembly in the recipient country), concluding licensed production arrangements and transferring technology that they believe to be outside the scope of an ATT. SIPRI’s data also shows the importance of covering supplies of parts and components for maintenance, upgrades and life-extension for conventional arms. 

Third, an ATT needs to include a mechanism for ensuring the scope of the arms covered by the treaty is regularly reviewed. Incremental changes in the scope of UNROCA during the past decade have been possible thanks to reviews of its operation, functioning and relevance every three years. The current ATT text only refers to the possibility for conferences of states parties to ‘Review the implementation of, and consider issues arising from the interpretation of, this Treaty’. It would be far better if the final treaty included the explicit proposal put forward by France for an obligation for the scope of the treaty to also be regularly reviewed. 

The ATT initiative was born of a desire to protect millions of innocent people from the devastating effects of weapons smuggled, traded and misused in violent conflicts around the world by regulating the arms trade. The current talks are an important opportunity to establish an international instrument that can do just that. However, to respond to the realities of the international arms trade—both today and tomorrow—greater clarity on an obligation to prevent diversion, an anti-circumvention clause, and a mandatory review mechanism must be incorporated into the final text.



Paul Holtom Paul Holtom is the Head of the Conventional Arms and Ammunition Programme at UNIDIR. He was previously the Director of the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme.