Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Guest Blog Post: The Case for an Arms Trade Treaty (and an Invitation to Sign a Letter to President Obama)

Guest Blog Post -- International Law Prof Blog

by Becky Farrar and Nate Smith

Despite the existence of multilateral agreements on cluster munitions, chemical and biological weapons, missile technology, and nuclear weapons, the world still has no multilateral standards regarding the trade in conventional arms. The results have been a slow-moving catastrophe: irresponsible arms transfers, often facilitated by profiteering weapons traffickers, fuel grave human rights violations against some of the most vulnerable populations in the world. Amnesty International estimates that there are 250,000 child soldiers in the world today, and that as of 2008, some 26 million people were internally displaced as the result of armed conflict.

Last year (July 2012), delegates from around the world convened in New York to negotiate an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The treaty text was to be adopted by consensus, and indeed, the outcome looked promising.  Although there were a few troubling loopholes, it appeared poised to become the first multilateral agreement linking the arms trade to human rights criteria—an historic achievement. At the last second, however, the U.S. delegation announced they needed more time to consider the text.  Several other countries then took advantage of this political cover to make similar statements.

The conference wasn’t a total loss, though -- the U.N. General Assembly voted to use the text as currently drafted as a starting point for a second conference in March 2013. This provides the Obama administration with a second chance to take a leadership role on human rights. The United States is the world’s biggest arms exporter, and it can bring significant political pressure to bear on reluctant states to put robust arms export laws in place.

What’s in the treaty? The ATT essentially requires all states to reform their arms export laws to meet certain minimum standards. Among other things, this includes prohibitions on transferring weapons to states subject to UN Security Council embargoes, or to entities that are likely to use them to facilitate grave violations of international human rights and humanitarian law – think conflict zones. It doesn’t create any new international enforcement bodies, instead relying on national-level enforcement. 

Will it be effective? That clearly remains to be seen. The idea is that it will “move the needle” by making it incrementally more difficult for those who would make irresponsible arms trades to do so. While no multilateral agreement can be 100% effective, any opportunity to make irresponsible transfers more difficult, to protect those most vulnerable from protracted armed conflict, and to stem the flow of weapons to conflict zones and into the hands of child soldiers, is an opportunity the international community is morally obliged to pursue.

Members of the international legal community are invited to join in signing a letter to President Obama that encourages U.S. support of a robust and comprehensive Arms Trade Treaty.  The deadline for signing the letter is Monday February 25, 2013. For more information, please contact Becky Farrar at rfarrar88 [at]

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