Why the Arms Trade Treaty Won’t Be Bulletproof

Without participation from the United States and other major arms exporters, a treaty is unlikely to be comprehensive.

This week sees the start of negotiations on a global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) that will aim to regulate and monitor the unruly global arms industry.

Last year’s “Arab Spring” uprisings have given particular salience to these negotiations as in many countries where demonstrations took place, imported weapons and armaments (often from Western exporters) were used against civilians in acts that contravened international human rights.

The ATT aims to create global standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms, covering a full spectrum of weaponry, from small arms to tanks, advanced missile systems and fighter jets.

The talks are the fruit of a long and protracted international diplomatic battle that stretches back years, with the tireless work of civil society advocacy groups, such as the NGO Control Arms, playing an instrumental role in raising the issue up to the forefront of the United Nations’ agenda.

Control Arms have been lobbying for an ATT since 2003, with the first UN resolution on the formation of the ATT passing in 2006.

Although 153 states voted in favor of ATT negotiations, several key arms dealing states, including China and Russia, abstained. The United States were the only country to vote no.

Arguably the turning point in the process came with the election of Barack Obama who in 2009 reversed the American position to support the negotiations, providing the catalyst for proper negotiations to begin.

Although on the face of things, the high proportion of states voting in favor and the United States’ changed position paint an encouraging picture, the truth is less rosy. The United States did vote yes — but with strings attached. The Obama Administration will only support the ATT negotiations if every decision is made by a process of consensus, an act which effectively gives every country a veto over every decision made during the talks.

Due to the importance of the arms industry to many countries, the chances of the major arms players coming to a consensus over a “bulletproof” ATT seem remote at best.

Arms sales generate vast revenue, provide thousands of jobs, encourage high tech industry development and allow exporters to leverage vast influence.

For example, a global ATT in place at current would make Russian military assistance to the Syrian regime illegal under international law, a prospect that would hardly delight the Russians, or the Syrian government for that matter.

The United States have often funneled military equipment to nonstate actors and crisis zones in accordance with their global strategic ambitions. One prominent example is their arming of the Afghan mujahideen during the 1980s to counter the Soviet invasion.

The United States are the unchallenged king of the global arms trade, exporting the lion’s share of military hardware (around about 30 percent of global exports in 2011) in conjunction with its defense spending dwarfing every other country by some margin (it accounted for 41 percent of global defense spending in 2011).

Serious questions would also be raised about the legitimacy of American military support for Israel, the largest recipient of such military assistance. Israel is often accused of human rights violations, frequently using American-made weaponry in supposedly disproportionate retaliatory strikes in the Palestinian territories.

In conjunction with the importance of the arms industry to the United States, a quick look at American conduct during past attempts at forming international regimes does not inspire much hope for the present ATT negotiations.

Although the vast majority of countries are signatories to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, the United States, which own the biggest stockpile of such weapons and are the world’s leading producer of cluster munitions, failed to sign, arguing that they are “legitimate” weapons with a “clear military utility” in combat.

In a similar vein, the United States refused to sign the Ottawa Treaty (Mine Ban Treaty) while a vast majority of countries did. It is unlikely that the United States and other major arms dealers will allow an ATT to pass that could severely curtail their ability to use national arms industries to their strategic advantage.

Although the aforementioned Convention on Cluster Munitions and the Ottawa Treaty have made positive strides in their respective areas without America’s backing, the global arms industry dwarfs their importance in economic and strategic terms. To be more than just words on paper, the ATT will need the full backing of the United States and other major weapons exporters.

However, the political will for a strong ATT among these states simply does not exist. Even before the conference began, states skeptical of the negotiations gave clear warnings that they would not accept a comprehensive treaty. China wants weapons that are “gifts” to be exempt. China and the United States both wants ammunition to be excluded, an aspect that proponents of the treaty view as essential for it to be effective.

Time will tell if the talks produce an ATT that is robust enough to effectively regulate the global arms industry but history has shown that American engagement in multilateral negotiations is driven by pragmatic realism — something that is not at all conducive to watertight international legislation.