Arms Trade, Export Control Regimes, and World Military Expenditure


Arms Trade, Export Control Regimes, and World Military Expenditure



In the Final Document of the First Special Session of the General Assembly devoted to Disarmament (SSOD-I) from in 1978, the General Assembly recommended to the major arms-supplier and recipient countries to consult among themselves “on the limitation of all types of international transfer of conventional weapons, based in particular on the principle of undiminished security of the parties with a view to promoting or enhancing stability at a lower military level.”1

Efforts to regulate the international trade in conventional weapons only started seriously in 1995 when a group of Nobel Peace Prize recipients expressed concern about the unregulated arms trade and its destructive consequences and called on the international community to conclude an international agreement to prevent irresponsible transfers of conventional arms. This call was further developed in 2003 by a group of civil society organizations, which launched the Control Arms Campaign. The Campaign pointed out that the lack of control of international trade in arms was a contributing factor to continued armed conflicts, poverty, and human rights violations. It recommended a global, internationally binding agreement prohibiting the transfer of weapons to areas where the weapons would likely be used for serious violations of human rights. The purpose of such an agreement would be to stop widespread human suffering caused by the irresponsible transfers of conventional arms.

United Nations Arms Trade Treaty

Support for the Campaign’s goal began to grow within the United Nations. In 2006, by an overwhelming majority, the General Assembly adopted a resolution 61/89 that called on member states to submit their views on the possibilities of concluding an arms trade agreement, and on its possible scope and content. There were 139 votes in favour and only one negative vote (the United States). Twenty-four countries, including Russia and China, abstained. The purpose of the agreement was to control the arms trade by establishing common international criteria and standards for the arms trade and creating an expert group of government representatives to continue working on the issue. In August 2008 the expert group presented its report, which recommended that an arms trade treaty, besides heavy conventional weapons, should also include small arms and light weapons. In December 2008, the General Assembly endorsed the report of the expert group and established a working group to analyze the proposals. In 2009, the assembly adopted a resolution 64/48 to convene a conference on an arms trade treaty in 2012. This was supported by 158 countries, including the United States. Further meetings were held during 2010 and 2011.

The Conference to negotiate and adopt an arms trade treaty was held in New York in July 2012. On the last day of the conference it became clear that it would not be possible to reach agreement on the draft treaty because the American delegation asked for more time to consider the draft treaty. A small group of other member countries were also not ready to accept the adoption of the treaty, which required unanimity. Against this background a group of more than ninety member states issued a joint statement expressing disappointment that it had not been possible to adopt the treaty and declaring that they were determined to conclude an arms trade treaty as soon as possible.

A final conference was convened by resolution 67/234A to adopt the arms trade treaty. The conference was held in March 2013. Because of opposition from Iran, Syria, and North Korea, the chairman of the conference noted that there was no consensus on adopting the treaty and the conference ended without result.

The draft treaty was then forwarded to the General Assembly, which – in an historic adoption, by an overwhelming majority of 154 votes in favour, 3 against, and 23 abstentions – adopted the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) on 2 April 2013.2 The three countries that voted against the treaty were Iran, North Korea, and Syria. The 23 countries that abstained included China, Russia, India, Bolivia, Cuba, Egypt, Belarus, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Yemen. Contrary to the situation in the 2012 conference on the adoption of the treaty, the General Assembly could adopt the treaty by a two-thirds majority vote. The treaty was opened for signature in June 2013 (Article 21) and entered into force in December, 2014. As of January 2016, the treaty has been signed by 130 states, including the United States, and ratified by 80 states, including Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, the Nordic countries, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. Canada has not yet signed the treaty.

The object of the Arms Trade Treaty is to establish the highest possible common international standards for regulating or improving the regulation of the international trade in conventional arms, and to prevent and eradicate the illegal trade in conventional arms and prevent their diversion.

Article 1: The treaty’s overall purpose is to contribute to international and regional peace, security, and stability, reduce human suffering, and promote cooperation, transparency, and responsible action by parties in the international trade in conventional weapons and thereby build confidence among states. The treaty’s introductory provisions stipulate the following eight principles, according to which all states shall:

1Have an inherent right to individual or collective self-defence, as recognized in Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations,

2Settle international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered, in accordance with Article 2 (3) of the Charter,

3Refrain in their international relations from threatening or using force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations, in accordance with Article 2 (4) of the Charter,

4Not interfere in domestic matters, in accordance with Article 2 (7) of the Charter,

5Respect international humanitarian law, in accordance with the Geneva Conventions of 1949; and respect for human rights in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,

6Have the responsibility, in accordance with their respective international obligations, to effectively regulate the international trade in conventional arms, and to prevent their diversion, and to establish and implement their respective national control systems,

7Have respect for the legitimate interests of states in acquiring conventional arms to exercise their right to self-defence and for peacekeeping operations, and to produce, export, import, and transfer conventional arms,

8Implement the treaty consistently and objectively, and without discrimination.

The ATT also notes that certain conventional arms for recreational, cultural, historical, and sporting activities are permitted, when they are legal to trade, own, and use. Other aspects of the treaty are:

Article 2: The treaty applies to all conventional arms in the following categories: battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large-calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and missile launchers, and small arms and light weapons.

Article 3: International trade activities, for the purposes of the treaty, comprise export, import, transit, trans-shipment, and brokering, referred to as “transfer.” Each state party must establish and maintain a national control system to regulate exports of ammunition.

Article 4: The same applies to exports of parts and components that can be assembled as conventional weapons.

Article 5: Each state must establish and maintain a national control system, including a national control list, and provide its national control list to the Secretariat, which will make it available to other states parties. States parties are encouraged to make their control lists publicly available.

Article 6: Arms transfers are prohibited when:

the transfer would violate the state’s obligations under measures adopted by the United Nations Security Council under Chapter VII of the Charter, in particular, arms embargoes,

the transfer would violate the state’s relevant international obligations under international agreements to which it is a party, in particular the transfer of, or illicit trafficking in, conventional arms,

a state knows that the arms or items would be used in acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians protected as such, or other war crimes, as defined by international agreements to which it is a party.

Article 7: Before authorizing the export of conventional arms, each exporting state party shall objectively and without discrimination, taking into account relevant factors, including information provided by the importing state, assess the potential risk that the conventional arms or items would

contribute to or undermine peace and security,

be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian law or international human rights or constitute an offence under international conventions or protocols on terrorism or transnational organized crime,

be used to commit or facilitate serious gender-based violence or serious acts of violence against women and children.

Article 8: Regulates the obligations of the importing state in relation to the importing state.

Articles 9 and 10: Each state party shall take appropriate measures to regulate, where necessary and feasible, the transit or trans-shipment under its jurisdiction of conventional arms through its territory in accordance with relevant international law, and regulate brokering.

Articles 11 to 16: The treaty contains provisions on diverting arms, record-keeping, reporting, enforcement, international cooperation, and international assistance.

Article 17: Agrees to convene conferences.

Article 18: Establishes the Secretariat.

The First Conference of States Parties (CSP) to the Arms Trade Treaty took place in Cancun, in August 2015. According to the Control Arms Campaign, the conference was successful overall, and made decisions on various procedural issues, as well as agreeing on the location of the ATT Secretariat in Geneva. Disappointingly, however, the parties could not agree on which templates to use as the basis for their first annual reports, and some debates and decisions highlighted political tensions and a North–South divide in approaches and perspectives.

The 70th General Assembly adopted resolution 70/58, the Arms Trade Treaty, by which the General Assembly “calls upon all states that have not yet done so to ratify, accept, approve or accede to the Treaty, according to their respective constitutional processes.” The resolution was adopted with 157 votes in favour, none against, and 26 abstentions, including Egypt, India, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.


The Arms Trade Treaty is the first agreement to establish global regulation of the international trade in conventional weapons. The ATT is also the first international arms control agreement concluded under the auspices of the United Nations since the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) was adopted in 1996.

As described above, the ATT prohibits states from transferring conventional weapons to other countries, when the states know that the weapons will be used to commit or promote genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes. The overall objective of the treaty is to prevent conventional weapons from being sold or transferred to dictators, warlords, terrorists, and criminals who may use conventional weapons to kill civilians or commit gross human rights violations or crimes.