Arms Trade Treaty set to enter into force with 50th ratification!

signing ceremonyToday at a signing ceremony in New York, Argentina, the Bahamas, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Saint Lucia, Senegal, and Uruguay submitted their instruments of ratification for the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). This marks 53 ratifications of the ATT, and thus the first ever treaty to regulate the international arms trade will enter into force in 90 days from now!

The entry into force of the ATT will mean that international arms transfers must comply with a set of provisions to reduce human suffering caused by irresponsible and unregulated trade . These provisions, among other things, make it illegal to transfer weapons if there is a risk that they will be used to violate international human rights law (IHRL) or international humanitarian law (IHL), including due to acts of gender-based violence.

But as many have pointed out, the entry into force is just the beginning. The real work begins with implementation.

Like many other international legal tools, the ATT is a compromise between many different countries, meaning that it contains limitations and loopholes. Its scope is narrow, providing only for consideration of a limited numbers of weapons systems and transfer activities. Its provisions covering ammunition, munitions, and parts and components are not comprehensive and it does not explicitly provide for increased transparency in the international arms trade. The treaty also does not stop major exporting countries from using their own weapons to engage in violations of IHL or human rights or in crimes of aggression. Finally, the biggest problem with the treaty text is the inclusion of the term “overriding risk,” affecting all of article 7, which could allow states to proceed with a transfer despite there being a substantial risk of violations of IHL or IHRL when they consider other risks such as political or economic to be significant.

Despite these weaknesses, the ATT can have a positive impact in curbing irresponsible and uncontrolled arms transfers, as long as it is implemented and interpreted to the highest possible standards. A robust implementation of the ATT could operate as a preventative tool against conflict and human suffering. Most existing instruments deal with conflict and its consequences after it occurs, but real human security can only be reached through prevention. In addition, the ATT breaks the habit of UN disarmament and arms control processes operating in isolation from the human rights organs. This isolation of issues, as we have seen in international fora, is no longer acceptable in our complex, globalized world. The ATT therefore has great potential to link arms control to human rights and to establish an international instrument with a holistic approach to effectively deal with problems facing today’s world.

wilpf attThe ATT is the first international legally-binding treaty that recognizes the link between gender-based violence (GBV) and the international arms trade. Article 7(4) obligates exporting state parties, as part of the export assessment process, to take into account the risk of conventional arms, ammunition, munitions, parts, or components being used to commit or facilitate serious acts of GBV. In practise this means that the risk assessment and implementation of the treaty will have to adopt a gender analysis. This will help to understand the situation in the recipient country more accurately and ensures that all people affected are taken into consideration. It also enables more effective humanitarian protection and prevention of armed violence.

Despite the fact that the UN adopted gender mainstreaming as a key tool for achieving gender equality in 1997, mainstreaming gender in disarmament and arms policies has faced many challenges due to a lack of integration into a general framework addressing all topics of security, armed conflict, and armed violence. One reason for this is because most UN strategies have focused only on women and only in special isolated fora away from the organization's everyday work.

The ATT could therefore not only prevent widespread armed GBV, but could also mark the beginning of a new development within the UN where the gender and equality debate are reformed and included in all UN bodies.

The fate of the ATT relies on whether governments want to take responsibility for preventing conflict and protecting their citizens and if they are willing to make changes to their own behaviour to improve people’s lives. The treaty is not strong enough in itself to make these changes; it is up to the state parties to set a high standard on their risk assessment activities and implementation.

Many UN members have highlighted that the treaty can be strengthened and adapted to future developments through its implementation. However, the fear is that if the treaty is not implemented and interpreted in good faith, it could instead of saving lives result in legitimizing the international arms trade as well as irresponsible transfers. The treaty’s entry into force is therefore only a first step in the long process towards regulating the international arms trade. The hard work is yet to come!