Happy Anniversary, Arms Trade Treaty

This week marks the first anniversary of the adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

Legally-binding and multilateral, the aim of the ATT is to regulate global trade in conventional weapons and curb the illegal trade of all arms.  Since the treaty was approved by the UN General Assembly on June 3, 2013, supporters have been pushing to get the necessary 50 member states to ratify the treaty in order for it to enter into force.  This ‘Race to 50,’ as NGOs have dubbed it, has reached a total of 31 countries, including the 18 which ratified the treaty yesterday.

Though some of the biggest players in the $80 billion industry of conventional arms trade ratified the treaty today, the world’s largest exporter and importer still have not. The USA and India are allowing baseless fears of threats to national sovereignty get in the way of the greater good and ratifying ATT.

President Obama has actually signed the treaty but it awaits ratification in the U.S. Senate. (And this could be a very long wait).  To give one example of the obstacles the ATT faces in the US Congress,  the Omnibus appropriations bill was signed into law in January, contained a provision that none of the funds appropriated for this year “may be obligated or expended to implement the Arms Trade Treaty until the Senate approves a resolution of ratification for the Treaty.”  The embargo on funds stems from a basic misunderstanding of the treaty.  Organizations like the National Rifle Association (NRA) interpret ATT as infringing on national sovereignty and domestic laws regarding the right to bear arms.  The treaty actually does neither.  It sets out to mainly stem the illegal cross-border sales of arms in order to prevent genocide and human rights violations. It does not affect domestic possession and self-defense laws in any way.

Furthermore, the NRA’s interpretation of the export controls portion of the treaty is incorrect. Their major complaint is that the U.S. would now be collecting ‘end user’ information on purchasers of imported firearms and would keep that information on file for the exporting country. The U.S. already does that for any number of imported goods.  The ‘end user‘ information is collected for customs duties and security purposes.  The customs controls do not limit the ability to purchase a gun. Textiles and fresh produce have more import/export controls than personal firearms.

India, recently declared the world’s largest importer of arms, faces far less domestic opposition to the bill but the heart of the issue is still national sovereignty.  One of their reasons for abstaining from the June 2013 General Assembly vote is that the treaty’s original purpose, to curb the illicit trafficking of arms, has been manipulated.  ATT also attempts to regulate legal, conventional arms sales.  India says this equates their military purchases for defense against Pakistan and China to the arms purchases of human rights abusers in Congo or Sudan.  On the surface, it may appear so, but ATT would not stop India from purchasing arms for their self-defense, merely make it more regulated.

Sujata Mehta, India’s former Permanent Representative, also argues that unilateral decisions by developed country exporters could put her country at risk, since Article 6 of ATT gives the Security Council deciding power on whether sovereign nations can trade arms.  However, Mehta and others refuse to address the core of the whole issue: India’s dangerous over-reliance on foreign arms.  Defense Minister A.K. Anthony’s call for more domestic defense production back in February 2013 must have fallen on deaf ears. With corruption in the military procurement sector, general state inefficiency, and lack of a clear legislative structure for the private sector to get involved, this may not happen – India may continue to ignore the human rights atrocities of armed conflict and not ratify ATT.

The “Race to 50” continues as 19 more countries are needed to ratify in order to enter it into force. But without the world’s largest exporter and importer of arms ratifying the Arms Trade Treaty, it stands to reason the treaty will not have nearly as large of an impact as it could.