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The United States Should Ratify the UN Arms Trade Treaty

Wed, 04/09/2014 - 1:47pm

By Joel Jaeger ’14, PoliticOle Columnist

On April 2, 2013, the UN General Assembly adopted the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), a multilateral convention that for the first time places legally-binding regulations on the $85 billion-a-year conventional arms trade. According to the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, 118 states have signed the ATT, and 31 have ratified it, but 50 ratifications are required before the treaty enters into force. US Secretary of State John Kerry signed the ATT on September 25, 2013, but a number of US Senators, supported by the National Rifle Association (NRA) have made clear that they plan to prevent the treaty from achieving the two-thirds Senate majority necessary for US ratification. As the world’s largest exporter of conventional arms, the United States should ratify the ATT. The treaty is far from perfect, but its benefits to international peace and security outweigh its risks. By ratifying the ATT, the United States would facilitate a widespread improvement in national arms export controls, put pressure on other states to accept the treaty, and secure a greater voice in the future of the international arms trade regime, all without violating the Second Amendment or having to substantially change its own arms transfer controls.

The final text of the ATT was a compromise between major arms exporters, progressive states, and civil society organizations. It limits arms transfers to abusers of international humanitarian and human rights law, increases arms trade transparency, and promotes the sharing of best practices for national export controls. The ATT’s regulations apply to small arms and light weapons, as well as a variety of combat vehicles and heavy weapons. The treaty only partially applies to ammunition, and does not mention more recent technological advances such as unmanned aerial vehicles.

The heart of the ATT seeks to ensure that conventional weapons do not fall into the wrong hands. According to Article 6(3) of the ATT, states parties shall not authorize transfers of conventional weapons if they have knowledge that the arms would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes. Article 7 prohibits arms transfers if there is an overriding risk of the weapons being used to undermine peace and security or commit a serious violation of international humanitarian or human rights law. Article 11 asks state parties to take a number of measures to prevent diversion of weapons. Although the ATT is legally binding, like most UN treaties it is unenforceable and relies on national implementation.

The mere presence of the ATT does not guarantee that states will stop selling weapons to human rights violators, but it may be able to shift a state’s political calculus over whether it chooses to ignore or heed the international community’s condemnations. The success of the ATT will rely upon civil society organizations to monitor the progress of states parties, calling out those governments that do not adhere to their promises. While the ATT will not instantly create new international norms, it will provide the basis for future developments and improvements.

This emerging international arms trade regulation regime will be crippled if the US Congress does not ratify the ATT, and the United States will have missed an important chance to further its international influence. The United States already has some of the most stringent export controls in the world, so very little would have to be done to bring it into compliance with the treaty. Other states that have weaker export controls would have a much larger obligation, and would be forced to raise their standards to the level of the United States. The substantial gains in international security would far outweigh the minimal changes that the United States would have to make.

If the United States were to ratify the ATT, it would pressure other states to do the same. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the top six exporters of conventional arms are the United States, Russia, Germany, France, China, and the United Kingdom. Together, their arms sales make up 78 percent of the global market. Germany, France, and the United Kingdom have already signed and will probably ratify the ATT, but Russia and China have not even signed the treaty. In general, the more states parties to the ATT, the more pressure there will be on others to join, but the unique position of the United States makes its approval of the treaty a litmus test of its future success.

Once the ATT enters into force, Article 17 designates that a Conference of States Parties be convened to determine the details of treaty implementation and discuss further expansions of the incipient international arms trade regime. The United States must ratify the ATT to influence the shape of future negotiations. In the June 2013 edition of Arms Control Today Paul Holtom and Mark Bromley mention thatover the course of multiple conferences, the ATT may expand to prevent arms transfers to terrorists. The United States will want a role in that discussion.

Most of the Senate’s objection to the ATT is the result of heavy lobbying by the NRA, which takes the treaty as a personal attack on American liberties. However, much of the panic over the ATT is based on misinformation or is the result of reflexive distrust of the United Nations. The preamble of the ATT affirms “the sovereign right of any State to regulate and control conventional arms exclusively within its territory, pursuant to its own legal or constitutional systems,” leaving the Second Amendment intact. Besides, the United Nations has never had national enforcement power. Ultimately, it is up to the United States how it chooses to implement the ATT.

If the Senate chooses not to ratify the ATT, the treaty could be “unsigned” when a president less sympathetic to its goals takes office. The ATT is too important to be caught in limbo. A first step in preventing unsavory weapons transfers, the ATT will positively contribute to peace and security worldwide.


Joel Jaeger ’14 is a Political Science major from Circle Pines, Minnesota. Joel is a regular PoliticOle columnist. You can reach Joel at

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