The successful passing of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in the General Assembly on the 2nd April is a huge step forward in the regulation of the international trade in arms. In all, 154 states voted to support the treaty with just 3 voting against and 23 abstentions. Although it was a disappointment that there could not be global unanimous consensus on the treaty at the United Nations Conference on the ATT which closed on the 28th March, it can still be deemed a huge success that it was instead passed as a General Assembly Resolution.
The new treaty will cover battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large-calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and missile launchers, and small arms and light weapons. The treaty will not impinge on domestic arms commerce or the right to bear arms but it carries a legal requirement for arms exporting countries to report arms sales and transfers which will make it significantly harder to obtain weapons and sow the seeds of war.
The text of the treaty includes provision for the prohibition of the transfer of arms which would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity and certain war crimes which was praised by the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng. However experts argue that there are still glaring omissions and ambiguities in the text of the treaty which could end up favouring the arms trade as there is nothing in the treaty prohibiting the sale of arms to non-state entities.
Although considering the shortcomings of the treaty is important, they are not sufficient to mar the huge leap forward that the treaty represents. It shows a global commitment to regulating arms and thus helping to prevent human rights abuses. It also marks the introduction of a new legal tool that can be used to protect those whose lives are threatened or whose groups are in danger of destruction.
The Office for the High Commissioner for Refugees published “The Global Burden of Armed Violence,” in 2011 which documented that more than half a million people die as a result of armed violence every year, fuelled in many cases by the widespread availability of weapons. Therefore the UNHCR sees the ATT as a positive step towards limiting the lucrative nature of the arms trade which is responsible for the majority of refugees being displaced from their homes due to violence made possible by the arms trade.