UN Arms Trade Treaty Becomes International Law

walking away from gunsTomorrow, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) will come into force, thereby becoming binding international law for all countries that ratified it. The ATT is the first legally binding international treaty that controls the global trade of conventional arms by prohibiting the transfer of weapons that may be used to commit atrocities and other serious human rights violations.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein hailed the imminent entry into force of the UN Arms Trade Treaty as a “landmark step in curbing the human rights violations that stem from the poorly regulated international trade in conventional weapons.“ “The unregulated arms trade is one of the main drivers of armed conflict and violence, contributing and facilitating the commission of human rights and humanitarian law violations.”

The ATT contains robust provisions preventing the transfer of conventional arms, ammunitions and parts and components to other countries when it is known that these arms or items would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or serious violations of international human rights law.

In addition, states are obliged to assess if there is an overriding risk that a proposed arms export to another country will be used for or contribute to serious violations of international law, in which case they are prohibited from selling these arms.

The Arms Trade Treaty, which was approved by the UN General Assembly on 2 April 2013, has been ratified by 60 states, including five of the top 10 arms exporters – UK, Germany, France, Spain and Italy. The US has signed the treaty, but has not yet ratified it. Other major arms producers such as China, Canada and Russia have resisted the ratification of the ATT. Iran, North Korea and Syria were the only countries that voted against the treaty.

The ATT is a long anticipated instrument and is the product of nearly 20 years of lobbying and campaigning by civil society actors and Nobel Peace Prize Laureates. According to Brian Wood, Amnesty International’s Head of Arms Control and Human Rights, “the originality of the Arms Trade Treaty idea was that – for the first time in history – states would have to consider international human rights and humanitarian law, as well as international criminal law, as a basis on which to decide whether an arms transfer across borders should go ahead.”

Amnesty International estimates that roughly half a million people are killed every year with firearms in the battlefield as a result of state repression and by criminal gangs. The poorly regulated arms trade also impedes socio-economic development. According to Oxfam armed violence costs Africa $18 billion per year.

Under the treaty all state parties must submit annual reports on their authorised or actual exports and imports of conventional arms. If states accuse each other of violating the treaty they may pursue arbitration, mediation, judicial settlement or other peaceful means to settle the dispute.

With the coming into force of the Arms Trade Treaty, for the first time international standards will allow states and civil society to hold accountable those who illicitly trade conventional weaponry.

The High Commissioner called on all States that have not ratified the ATT to do so and to apply the treaty’s provisions to the broadest range of conventional arms.