A flawed Arms Trade Treaty: Taking courage from a flawed NPT

Elements of the peace and disarmament community are currently engaged in a spirited debate over whether the new Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is an achievement worth celebrating or a failure that could actually harm arms transfer control efforts in the long run.  The ATT is clearly a compromise-ridden agreement, but did enough survive to make it a good basis for ongoing efforts to bring restraint and accountability into the international arms transfer system?

I suspect most advocates of arms control and genuine disarmament who strongly support the Arms Trade Treaty[1] are a lot like me in the sense that they don’t need to be persuaded that it is a seriously flawed Treaty. Of course it is a weak Treaty. It has lots of loopholes, some large enough to drive many a tank through, and it has no reliable enforcement mechanism.[2]

What did we expect? Did we really think that states engaged in a lucrative industry worth billions of dollars[3] and inextricably linked to their own self-perceived economic and security interests (as perverse as those perceptions might frequently be) would awake one morning to sign and seal a Treaty that directly challenged all that? That’s not how states act. So the relevant question isn’t whether the Treaty is adequate to deal now with a destructive arms trade. It isn’t. The relevant question is whether the Treaty articulates basic principles of state responsibility[4] and introduces the kinds of mechanisms and processes that can be employed over time to help shift perceptions of self-interest and to modify behaviour. And it does that.

The Treaty falls well short of perfection. No argument there. But does it do real harm? The usual argument that the Treaty does harm focuses on the possibility that, due to the lack of stringent prohibitions and clear consequences for violators, the Treaty will tend to “justify the status quo” and further “entrench the interests of arms exporters.”[5] Well, it’s hardly the Treaty that does that – that all happened at least a century ago. The current arms trade is obviously legitimized by prevailing political assumptions and it most certainly advances the perceived interests of arms exporters. What this new Treaty does is begin a serious political process to challenge those assumptions and perceptions of self-interest.

A good model for how this Treaty might be expected to work can be found in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

As we’re all well aware, in the NPT (negotiated in 1968 with entry into force in 1970) the nuclear weapon states pledged, in paragraph VI, to stop the nuclear arms race. In the decade and a half following that solemn pledge those same states engaged in the most extravagant and irresponsible arms race, the nuclear arms race, the planet has ever known.

So much for the Treaty – except, that isn’t the full story.

The NPT certainly didn’t persuade states to immediately begin acting against what they perceived their interests to be. Those perceptions of self-interests were in fact perverse (the obscene notion that the world could be made secure by accumulating arsenals capable of reducing it to radiation-contaminated rubble within minutes), and so nuclear weapon states agreed to the NPT only because they thought they had permanently de-linked a weak and ambiguous disarmament commitment from a firm, enforceable non-proliferation commitment. But this heavily flawed NPT turned out to be a key instrument, over the decades, for changing perceptions of self-interest, for making disarmament and non-proliferation mutually dependent, and for insisting that nuclear reductions, when they finally began to take place, would be irreversible.

The convoluted wording of Article VI did not explicitly promise nuclear disarmament, and as recently as the early 2000s, US officials were still arguing that the NPT is a non-proliferation Treaty only, not a disarmament Treaty.[6] But through the NPT Review Process (assisted by the World Court) the Parties to the Treaty gradually hammered out what the ambiguous wording of Article VI was really supposed to mean – and now all Parties to the Treaty have agreed that it means there is an obligation to undertake complete nuclear disarmament and to achieve a world without nuclear weapons.[7] Through the Review Process, States Parties also set about articulating a detailed nuclear disarmament agenda that is broadly agreed and which the nuclear weapons states are under sustained political pressure to implement.[8] And for the first time, the world now actually has only about half as many nuclear weapons as there were when the NPT was first negotiated.[9] It is, nevertheless, still a flawed Treaty, which is why there is now a push on to begin preparations and negotiations toward a non-discriminatory nuclear weapons convention which will set the legal framework for a world without nuclear weapons.[10]

As did the NPT, the Arms Trade Treaty sets in motion a key conversation and a review process with importance well beyond the compromised substance of the Treaty. The conversation is, among other things, about what constitutes legitimacy and legality in arms production and exports and the Treaty articulates key principles to guide that normative, behaviour changing, conversation. The processes which the Arms Trade Treaty launches include greater information sharing and reporting (Article 13) to support the normative and informed conversation. And, notably, the provision for Conferences of States Parties will ensure that States regularly review implementation of the Treaty, consider amendments to the Treaty, consider issues related to interpretation of the Treaty, and so on (Article 17). As in the NPT, this review process promises to be slow and frustrating, but it also holds the promise of being central to promoting accountability and restraint and for consolidating changes in norms and behaviour as they occur.

If perfection were available, that would certainly be my choice, but failing that, I favor enabling international mechanisms like Treaties that advance principles of more responsible behaviour and introduce mechanisms to enhance accountability – and the flawed ATT does both of those things.



[1] UN General Assembly, A/67/L.58, 1 April 2013. http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/67/L.58&Lang=E

[2] The Enforcement article (Article 14) is a single sentence: “Each State Party shall take appropriate measures to enforce national laws and regulations that implement the provisions of this Treaty.”

[3] World-wide arms deliveries during the years 2004 through 2011 are valued at $300 billion (US 2011 $) by the US Congressional Research Service. Richard F. Grimmett and Paul K. Kerr, “Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2004-2011, US Congressional Research Service, Report 42678, August 24, 2012. www.crs.gov

[4] Basic principles are to prohibit transfers that would violate UN arms embargos or other prohibitions established in international agreements, and if it is known that the arms would be “used in the commission 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….” Further, states are required to take into account certain relevant factors in their decision-making, such as: impact on peace and security; whether the arms could be used in human rights and humanitarian law violations, in terrorism, organized crime. (Articles 6 and 7)

[5] Barnaby Pace, “Why the Arms Trade Treaty is a failure,” The Armourer’s of Faith, http://armourersfaith.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/why-the-arms-trade-treaty-is-a-failure/#comments

[6] Christopher Ford, a disarmament official in the George W. Bush Administration, argued that while Article VI includes the promise to “pursue” negotiations, “Article VI requires no specific disarmament measures.” “Debating Disarmament: Interpreting Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” Nonproliferation Review, vol.14, no.3 (November 2007), at 401. Further discussed at: http://www.hudson.org/files/publications/NonproliferationReviewConference2007.pdf

[7] The Global Zero movement now mobilizes a broad cross-section of global leaders to build political will and technical expertise in pursuit of that goal. The Simons Foundation of Canada is the movement’s Principle Sponsor. http://www.globalzero.org/

[8] Final Documents of the Review Conferences of 1995, 2000, and 2010.

[9] The Natural Resources Defense Council’s Table of Global Nuclear Weapons Stockpiles, 1945-2002, shows total warheads in 1968 to be 38,633. That total rose to 65,056 by 1986. http://www.nrdc.org/nuclear/nudb/datab19.asp (some sources show the total reached about 70,000). Today the global stockpile is at 17,300 (compiled by the Ploughshares Fund of the United States, with figures from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists). http://ploughshares.org/world-nuclear-stockpile-report

[10] See Canadians for a Nuclear Weapons Convention. http://www.nuclearweaponsconvention.ca/

This entry was posted in Arms Trade, Nuclear Disarmament. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *