3 reasons to celebrate the UN Arms Trade Treaty | ActionAid UK

Deepayan Basu Ray

Resilience and Emergencies Policy Adviser

As the UN Arms Trade Treaty closes in on becoming binding international law, there are many positive implications to celebrate, including placing human rights above profit, putting an end to armed violence against women and children and gender based violence, and making the global arms trade transparent.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf celebrates the Arms Trade Treaty in June 2013 at the UN Headquarters in New York
Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf celebrates the Arms Trade Treaty in June 2013 at the UN Headquarters in New York

On this day last year, a Special Session of the UN General Assembly successfully voted through a resolution with enormous global implications. 154 countries voted in favour, 3 voted against, and 23 abstained.

The resolution formally adopted the UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), and opened it for signature and ratification by UN Member States.

For the first time ever, a global legally binding treaty had been created to put controls on the global sale of arms and ammunition – a 60 to 80 billion dollar industry annually!

Why is this important to ActionAid? 

It is important because once in force and properly implemented, this treaty will have profoundly transformative positive impacts on the lives and livelihoods of people in the global south.

For too long, armed violence and the prevalence of weapons has held good governance hostage, reversed development gains, and impeded the rule of law. The ATT is set to become one of the first global legally binding instruments to halt and reverse some of these destructive trends.

There are three legal obligations in this treaty that give us particular reasons to celebrate:

  1. the legal obligation to uphold human rights and humanitarian law
  2. the legal obligation to prevent arms sales that could be used to perpetrate acts of gender based violence (GBV), or armed violence against women and children; and
  3. the legal obligation on governments to be transparent about their activities.

Human rights over profit

The Treaty demands that before any arms can be transferred, a comprehensive risk assessment be carried out to determine if there are risks that these arms will be used to abuse human rights. In other words, arms cannot be allowed to be sold to tyrants, to militias, to those who wield weapons to impose their will.  Obvious? Yes, but now it’s set to be the (international) law.

The treaty places adherence to human rights above profit, a veritable sea-change in the way the arms industry operates.  In many cases, this will result in sellers having to re-assess – and in some cases stop outright – many questionable arms deals in future.

Tackling gender based violence, and violence against women and children

The second obligation of major relevance to organisations like ActionAid is that for the first time, measures to reduce incidences of gender based violence and violence against women and children now have binding obligations on states.

This is a step farther than UN Security Council Resolution 1325, or even the Commission on the Status of Women’s annual outcome documents – which are just political obligations.

Article 7.4 of the ATT demands that arms sellers have to conduct an assessment on whether or not the weapons to be transferred will be used to perpetrate acts of GBV or violence against women and children. If such a risk is found, then the deal cannot be completed.

The importance of this cannot be overstated! For too long, within UN debating chambers, no legally binding frameworks have been agreed that put a stop to such practices.  Finally, we see the tide turning.

Improving transparency

And this change in tide is further reflected by the parts of the ATT that enable Civil Society to hold states to account. Once the treaty is in force, NGOs can demand transparency over questionable arms transfer decisions, such as ones that have negatively impacted on women and girls. 

How close is the treaty to becoming international law?

In order for all this to be implemented comprehensively, the treaty has to enter into force – which requires at least 50 countries to formally absorb the treaty into their national laws, and then submit an ‘instrument of ratification’ to the UN. 

Since June 2013, 118 countries have ‘signed’ the treaty – signalling their intent to formally ratify the treaty at some point.  13 countries have already ratified the treaty.

Today, the UK, along with Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, and 13 other countries will formally ratify the treaty at a special ceremony in the UN – bringing the total number of ratifications to 31. This is an important milestone for the UN, the British and other ratifying governments, and also one for global civil society.

With only 19 more ratifications needed before the treaty enters into force, this milestone could happen by 2015!

Needless to say, ActionAid’s mission to stand in solidarity with people and communities experiencing vulnerability and insecurity will receive a significant positive boost as the ATT beings to be implemented globally. 

Our ongoing work to eradicate gender based violence and violence against women and girls now has a legally binding mechanism to influence state behaviour to be more progressive and proactive.

Which countries have signed the treaty where ActionAid works?

In the 43 countries and territories where ActionAid works, Nigeria was the first to ratify, and another 27 countries have formally signed the treaty. Of the 13 who haven’t signed the treaty yet, 8 voted in favour, 2 abstained, and 2 did not register a vote for the UN General Resolution that formally adopted the treaty.

The USA has signed the treaty as well – they account for nearly 60% of the global arms trade. After today, 5 of the world’s top 10 sellers will have ratified the treaty.

Although not a panacea, the Arms Trade Treaty is an important tool in our ongoing fight against injustice, inequality, and poverty.

Follow Deepayan on Twitter for Treaty updates and analysis

Deepayan Basu Ray/ ActionAid