Inspiring hope among human rights activists around the world, the international Arms Trade Treaty went into effect on Wednesday, December 24, aimed at transforming the way the global arms trade operates and in turn helping to reduce armed violence and conflict.
Under the terms of the treaty, each state must assess if there is an overriding risk that a proposed arms export to another country will be used for or contribute to serious human rights abuses or organized crime; if so the deal cannot be authorized by the seller.
The treaty has widespread support; only three countries—North Korea, Syria, and Iran—voted against it at the United Nations. As of Wednesday, 130 countries had signed it, and 60 had ratified. The U.S. signed the Arms Trade Treaty in September 2013, but the Senate has not yet ratified it.
Human rights groups heralded the treaty going into force.
"The ATT will transform the way arms and ammunitions are traded around the world meaning there can be no doubt about who will be their end-user," said Anna Macdonald, director of Control Arms, a global alliance based in New York that has been campaigning for an arms treaty since 2003. "It will no longer be acceptable to turn a blind eye and look the other way when arms are being transferred into the hands of regimes that will use them to devastate people’s lives and violate human rights."
According to Amnesty International, "[a]t least half a million people die every year on average and millions more are injured, raped, and forced to flee from their homes as a result of the poorly regulated global trade in weapons and munitions. The arms trade is shrouded in secrecy, but the recorded value of international transfers is approaching USD$100 billion annually."
Clare da Silva, a lawyer who assisted Amnesty International with legal and policy advice over many years through the treaty negotiations at the United Nations, explained in practical terms what the treaty could mean.
"I worked as a defense lawyer in Sierra Leone for four years at the Special Court that was trying individuals for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed during the Civil War," she said. "Every day it was story after story of all these unimaginable things that happened to people during the war, often with weapons. That experience really reinforced the need for an ATT—that there needed to be another way to deal with mass atrocities than just retrospective mechanisms like criminal tribunals. I felt the ATT could in some way help to ensure the conventional arms trade does not contribute to international crimes, like what happened in Sierra Leone."
But skeptics say the treaty is far from a comprehensive solution to global violence.
As Ben Doherty writes at the Guardian:
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The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which comes into force on Wednesday, will not disarm the world.
There are too many weapons already across the globe, and too many legitimate uses that governments – and others – can claim for them.
No weapons will be collected and destroyed by this treaty, nor will the use of any specific weapon be outlawed. There will be no tariffs or limits placed on arms transfers.
...Critics argue the treaty’s language and obligations have been watered down to attract broad support (especially around reporting requirements), and ammunition is excluded.
The three largest arms dealers in the world—Russia, China and the U.S.—are not parties to the treaty.
While the U.S. has signed the ATT, the Senate has vowed to reject the treaty’s ratification.
The National Rifle Association strongly opposes the treaty.
Groups that support the international law say they will continue to press for all states—particularly the U.S., which is the largest arms exporter in the world—to ratify the ATT in the next year.
"The work does not stop here, and we will not rest on our laurels," said Salil Shetty of Amnesty International. "While the Arms Trade Treaty sets key ground rules for the global arms trade, it is not a panacea. It will require even more widespread support and pressure to ensure states strictly adhere to its principles."