Making the Arms Trade Treaty Work in Practice is the Real Challenge for Africa

Reform of Guinea-Bissau’s military at the crossroads
Reform of Guinea-Bissau’s military at the crossroads. Photo: Africa Renewal/flickr.

An outcome that does not make everyone happy is the hallmark of a successful negotiation process, to paraphrase Australian Ambassador Peter Woolcott, president of the United Nations’ Final Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). He and his team certainly achieved that goal. Most states and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) agree that the treaty text does not meet the expectations that were created over the past two decades. However, mitigating this situation is the belief that six years after the ATT has come into force, states will be able to make amendments to strengthen the treaty. Whether this is viable is a question for another day.

The immediate future of the ATT, in the case of Africa, is to find answers to the question on implementation. Each African state will have to evaluate what resources it has available and then determine what resources are needed to implement the treaty. Several states have been developing capacity on reporting on other treaties and instruments such as the United Nations Programme of Action (UNPoA) and the International Tracing Instrument. These instruments impact on different areas of conventional arms, and small arms and light weapons.


The UN Arms Trade Treaty: an Inadequate Solution for Illicit Weapons Trafficking?

Image by kcdsTM/Flickr.

While the political mayhem befalling Libya, Mali, and Syria, has been victim to some media sensationalism, the uproar has also shed light on a growing concern over escalating illicit arms trafficking, a generally accepted cause in the senseless killing of thousands. The long-lasting issue has again become a focal point of an international community relentlessly attempting to find new ways to contain it. Discussions have opened another “Pandora’s Box.” The challenge is drowned in the magnitude and complexity of the problem. Licit and illicit arms trade is lucrative, reaching far over $60 billion. A bewildering array of weapons change hands each year. The small arms trade market alone is estimated at $8.5 billion, with illegal sales raising the total by a staggering $2 billion. Direct consequences are alarming. According to UNDP Assistant Administrator Joseph Ryan “more than half a million people die every year as a result of armed violence” and as many as 2,000 people die each day in conflicts fueled by illegally traded arms.

Final Preparations for an Arms Trade Treaty

Not everbody is as enthusiastic about the ATT. Image: Control Arms/flickr

While the ISN is examining the relationship between economics and war this week, UN delegations in New York are gathering for the last preparatory meeting on a treaty to regulate the global arms trade. After years of advocacy, preparation and dialogue, representatives from all UN member-states will meet in July for the UN Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). While expectations surrounding the treaty are very high in some quarters  (as “one of the most important treaties the world has ever seen”, according to Kate Allen of Amnesty International UK), many remain skeptical.

What is the treaty about? The aim of the ATT is to regulate the import and export of conventional weapons (and related products and services) on a global scale. While for some states the goal is merely to curb illicit trade in arms (i.e., mainly smuggling), others are aiming higher.  Advocates of a strong and comprehensive ATT want to prevent arms exports to states which don’t comply with international humanitarian law and human rights law.

In response to such high standards, some states accuse the West of wanting to stop the export of weapons to certain states altogether, which would deny them the right to self-defense, or so critics argue.

A Timely Survey on Small Arms

Most states support the inclusion of small arms and light weapons into the scope of the Arms Trade Treaty. China, Egypt, Ethiopia and Iran are the odd ones out. Screenshot from

Private security companies (PMCs) employ twice as many people as police forces worldwide. Yet, PMCs only hold a fraction of the firearms possessed by law enforcement agencies.

This is one of the findings (pdf) presented in the Small Arms Survey 2011 published last week by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. This year’s theme is States of Security.  In the introduction, Robert Muggah, research director at Small Arms Survey, writes: “scholars and policy-makers are revisiting certain fundamental questions about security provision in the 21st century: Who actually provides security, and under whose authority?”

Apart from this special focus, which resulted in one chapter on private security and small arms, and another on multinational corporations and private security, the volume features statistics on small arms and light weapons (SALW) transfers. There we learn that the US, Italy, Germany, Brazil and Switzerland are the top exporters of SALW. The biggest importers are the US, Canada, the UK, Germany and Australia.

The Small Arms Trade Transparency Barometer reveals that Switzerland, the UK, Germany, Serbia and Romania are the most transparent among the big small arms exporters. It does not come as a surprise that Switzerland, the UK and Germany are also among the biggest sponsors of the Small Arms Survey research project. Nor is it surprising that Iran and North Korea are the two least transparent exporters of SALW.

The publication of the Small Arms Survey is timely: