Sarah Parker, policy support officer for the Arms Trade Treaty, speaks to the Global Initiative about the impact of the ATT, its complementarity with other weapons instruments and the international response to the treaty.

GI: What was the genesis of the ATT and the problem it was originally negotiated to address?

SP: The idea of an international treaty governing the arms trade first arose in 1925 at the League of Nations, and since then it has gone through several metamorphoses. The impetus for the ATT in its current form, however, began some 20 years ago, when Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Óscar Arias (and former president of Costa Rica) produced a declaration signed by several other Nobel laureates pushing for a treaty on the arms trade.

It then took several years of discussions, and two rounds of negotiations (in 2012 and 2013), neither of which could achieve consensus  So the treaty was adopted by a resolution in the UN General Assembly in April 2013.

The main objectives of the treaty are to reduce human suffering and establish common international standards, so that everybody applies the same criteria when selling weapons. The focus had been on imports and exports, but, for much of the world, the major issue is illicit trafficking and diversion. Preventing the illicit trade as a secondary objective came later.

GI: Why did the member states feel that this new treaty would be necessary, given that there were pre-existing international instruments, such as the UNTOC Firearms Protocol? Hadn’t the issue already been dealt with?

SP: Indeed, there were already the Programme of Action on Small Arms (PoA) and the Firearms Protocol (FP) – both adopted in 2001. It may initially seem strange that two instruments were adopted in the same year that have so much common ground. But the FP is very much about taking a crime-prevention approach, which is why it contains provisions on mutual legal assistance, investigative techniques and prosecution, and so on. The PoA is more about managing stockpiles, and marking and tracing weapons, and so on, which are measures to prevent illicit trafficking.

The main difference with the ATT is that it deals with all conventional weapons, not just small arms and light weapons, like the other two instruments. It also deals with battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, helicopter gunships, warships, and everything in between. So it is more comprehensive than the other instruments in terms of its scope. The new treaty also gives states something new to invest their energy in, a new hope, a new angle and a different perspective on the issue. So there is some complementarity, reasons why they coexist.

GI: How does the ATT deal with overlaps with these existing instruments?

SP: The ATT actually enhances certain aspects of the PoA and FP that are not very detailed, and vice versa. For example, both the PoA and the FP talk about the need for states to have international transfer controls, but they don’t go into a lot of detail, whereas this is covered by some of the core provisions of the ATT. Article 7 lays out how to – I paraphrase – assess the risks should the transfer of weapons contribute to or undermine peace and security, and if such items might be used to commit a serious violation of human-rights law, or if it might be an act constituting an offence under international conventions or protocols relating to transnational organized crime, to which the exporting state is a party. So, it elaborates much more than the FP and the PoA do on the risks that states should consider when assessing a transfer.

At the same time, the main provision in the ATT that aims to prevent illicit trafficking (Article 11, on diversion) says that states need to prevent and address diversion of weapons into the illicit trade. But it doesn’t tell them how to do it. Whereas, if you look at the PoA and the FP, they contain all the measures needed to prevent and address diversion, such as marking and tracing, stockpile management and so on. So there’s complementarity: they build on and enhance one another.

GI: If states parties to the treaty are not adhering to these provisions about the illicit trade, what sort of mechanisms then come into play?

SP: That’s a tricky question. Weapons trading is a very sensitive subject, which is what makes it interesting but also challenging: there is the economic side, the security side, its role in political alliances, and so on.

During the negotiations, there was discussion on the need for some kind of review mechanism but, in the end, this was not included in the treaty. The treaty gives states parties the framework to make decisions but, ultimately, states have discretion in terms of how to apply it. There’s a dispute-settlement clause, like there is in all treaties, that would allow states to go to arbitration, but it has not yet been exercised. Of course, civil society is always able to take action and use the ATT as a framework to challenge government decisions, as seen in the Campaign Against the Arms Trade case brought against the UK government.

GI: So, given that the focus from Security Council resolutions is mainly on Africa and the Middle East at the moment, how are these regions responding to the ATT?

SP: Africa – very positively. African states were very supportive and active during the negotiations. They wanted this treaty. We run something called the ‘voluntary trust fund’ and the majority of applications have been from African states who want to join the treaty, and want assistance to do that.

In particular, in the West African ECOWAS region we have a very high participation rate, there are only two states that are not states parties.

The Middle East is a different story: there is very little participation so far. We have a few states parties from the MENA region and several signatories, but the majority of states in the region have not joined the treaty. Nevertheless, the majority of the world’s top 50 arms exporters have joined the treaty.

GI: Does the fact that illicit arms are mentioned in Target 16.4 of the Sustainable Development Goals have an impact on how the ATT is working?

SP: Absolutely! The SDG agenda is a very helpful boost to the whole process, and will breathe some new life into implementing the ATT as well as other instruments, as it makes states see the connection to development and establishes another objective for the ATT: to help states achieve the SDGs. There have already been several discussions specifically on the issue of the synergies between the SDGs and the ATT, and how the ATT can help contribute towards the achievement of the SDGs.