On April 2, 2013, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Arms Trade Treaty ATT, placing legally-binding regulations on the $85 billion-a-year conventional arms trade. According to the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, 118 states have since signed the ATT and 31 have ratified it, but 50 ratifications are required before the treaty enters into force. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry signed the ATT on September 25, 2013, but a number of U.S. Senators, supported by the National Rifle Association NRA, have made clear that they plan to prevent the treaty from achieving the two-thirds Senate majority vote necessary for U.S. ratification.
As the world’s largest exporter of conventional arms, the United States should ratify the ATT. The treaty is far from perfect, but its benefits, like international peace and security, outweigh its risks. By ratifying the ATT, the United States would facilitate a widespread improvement in national arms export controls and secure a greater voice in the future of the international arms trade regime, all without violating the Second Amendment or having to substantially change its own arms transfer controls.
The final text of the ATT was a compromise that limits arms transfers to abusers of international human rights law, increases arms trade transparency and promotes the sharing of best practices for national export controls. The ATT’s regulations apply to small arms and light weapons, as well as a variety of combat vehicles and heavy weapons. The treaty only partially applies to ammunition and does not mention more recent technological advances such as unmanned aerial vehicles.
The heart of the ATT seeks to ensure that conventional weapons do not fall into the wrong hands. According to the ATT, State Parties that have ratified the treaty shall not authorize transfers of conventional weapons if they have knowledge that the arms would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes. It also prohibits the transfer of arms if there is an overriding risk of the weapons being used to commit a serious violation of human rights law and asks State Parties to take a number of measures to prevent the dispersion of weapons. Although the ATT is legally binding, like most U.N. treaties it is unenforceable and relies on national implementation.
The ATT does not guarantee that states will stop selling weapons to human rights violators, but it may be able to shift a state’s political praxis over whether it chooses to ignore or heed the international community’s condemnations. The success of the ATT will rely on civil society organizations to monitor the progress of State Parties, calling out those governments that do not adhere to their promises. While the ATT will not instantly create new international norms, it will provide the basis for future developments and improvements.
This emerging international arms trade regulation will be crippled if the U.S. Congress does not ratify the ATT, and the U.S. will also have missed an important chance to further its international influence. The United States already has some of the most stringent export controls in the world, so very little would have to be done to bring it into compliance with the treaty. Other states that have weaker export controls would be forced to raise their standards to the level of the United States. The substantial gains in international security would far outweigh the minimal changes that the United States would have to make.
If the Senate chooses not to ratify the ATT, the treaty could be left “unsigned” when a president less sympathetic to its goals takes office. The ATT is too important to be caught in limbo. A first step in preventing unsavory weapons transfers, the ATT will positively contribute to peace and security worldwide.