Swaran Singh (360info)
New Delhi ●
Wed 24 Aug 2022
Membership in the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is on the rise: 111 countries have ratified the agreement since it entered into force in 2014, and another 30 countries have signed it. The Philippines is the newest member, joining in March 2022. However, the treaty’s efforts to regulate the transfer of conventional arms continue to be questioned, ignored and violated – by ATT signatories as well as others. other powerful nations.
From August 22 to 26, States Parties to the ATT will hold their eighth annual conference in Geneva to discuss its future and its major challenges.
All parties to the ATT are required to provide Annual Report detailing their trade in conventional arms over the previous year. But, with its growing number of signatory states, the proportion of those complying has fallen from 84% in 2015 to just 52% in 2021. This means that almost half of signatories do not submit these reports or do not do not trade in conventional arms, which means that their actions are of little significance to the aims and objectives of the treaty. This seemingly waning commitment makes the growing number of ATT states parties almost irrelevant.
There is no doubt that most international conventions have similar limitations and, especially when not supported by major powers, they become vulnerable to violation. But the ATT has failed to bring the world’s major conventional arms importers and exporters into its fold. The world’s largest producer and exporter of conventional arms, the United States, signed the ATT in 2013 but never ratified it. In April 2019, President Donald Trump announcement the United States would “revoke the effect of the American signature” of the ATT. (The treaty contains no such provisions other than withdrawal with notice.) President Joe Biden has no statement yet about President Trump’s ‘non-signature’. Russia, another major exporter, has not yet signed it and remains outside its mandate. China had joined in July 2020 but the world’s largest importer, India has not yet signed it either.
It is not that powerful nations have had no interest in regulating the arms trade. They have been particularly effective in responding to the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) which they believe threaten their own security. They have imposed stringent regulatory regimes on WMD transfers including ballistic missiles and even on the proliferation of their technologies, materials and know-how. Likewise, thanks to the major powers’ expensive WMD modernization programs, their arms control seems to focus only on the weapons they were already planning to get rid of. This allowed them to ban weapons of mass destruction that less powerful nations were still struggling to invent or acquire, thereby ensuring their safety by widening the gap between the inventories of less powerful nations and the arsenals of those dominant nations. . Among major WMD possessing nations, their mutual arms control was intended to provide strong deterrence through mutually assured destruction strategies that discouraged the outbreak of an unwinnable nuclear conflict.
But guided by great power interests, conventional arms regulations have nothing to do with similar multilateral WMD and ballistic missile export controls. Indeed, the same dominant nations are the main exporters of conventional arms. Indeed, the reluctance to regulate the trade in conventional arms is observed both among major exporters (United States, Russia, China) and among major importers (India, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, China) of conventional arms.
The lure of financial and political windfalls from the conventional arms trade has made the task of the ATT difficult. Therefore, state and non-state actors continue to fight with weapons on both sides supplied by the same manufacturers.
The ATT is indeed further circumscribed by the fact that it seeks to control arms transfers, in particular to State and non-State violators of humanitarian law, while its mandate remains limited solely to the voluntary actions of its States Parties. Even then, the treaty does not interfere with the domestic production and distribution of signatory states or discourage their exports or the use of arms for self-defense. The ATT depends on signatory states voluntarily enacting national laws to prevent their exports of what the ATT defines as lethal weapons to what it considers to be violators of international norms and conventions; organized crime cartels and terrorists are easy examples.
According to the framework of UN Conventional Arms Register, established in 1991, the ATT expects signatory states to submit annual reports on their conventional arms imports and exports. Collectively, this can help ATT present data on broader trends and influence global public opinion against illegal and illegitimate arms transfers. But as decades of debate have shown, these submissions have remained vulnerable to subjective national perceptions and priorities. States interpreted the definitions of illegitimate and illegal arms transfers subjectively, which limited their adherence to the objectives of the ATT.
It has been nearly impossible to reach consensus on the preferred guidelines for what constitutes illegal arms transfers and how these should be regulated. One country’s terrorists are another country’s freedom fighters. One often sees nations supporting groups and nations that others see running counter to accepted norms and laws on transnational crime, terrorism and cross-border insurgencies. New weapon technologies — even in the area of conventional weapons — present another set of complex and ever-changing challenges for the interpretation of ATT provisions.
While increasing the number of signatories to the ATT may have its merits, it may be time to focus on strengthening its effectiveness among its signatory parties. The eighth conference of the ATT must revisit its strategies and basic assumptions to explore why powerful states continue to defy its logic. This would be an important step towards better control of the growing inter-state and intra-state violence in the world.
The author is Professor of Diplomacy and Disarmament at Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi) and currently Visiting Professor at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada).
Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.