The arms control movement in UN started in 2006 at the General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and Security. After more than 6 years, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly finally adopted the Arms Trade Treaty on 2 April 2013, one of the most significant arms control pact passed since the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

The treaty
The most recent talks for the Arms Trade Treaty in March 2013 was almost derailed when 3 countries, Iran, North Korea, and Syria, refused to give their consensus for the proposed treaty (consensus from all members are required for the treaty to be adopted at the talks). However, a clause in the text allowed for a vote in the UN General Assembly in such an event.[1]

In the UN General Assembly, the Arms Trade Treaty was adopted with 154 countries in favour, 3 countries against, and 23 abstentions. The three countries against the treaty are Iran, North Korea, and Syria.

Designed to control the S$99 billion conventional arms trade worldwide, the Arms Trade Treaty would cover the transfer and trade of tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large-calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and missile launchers, as well as small arms and light arms. Under the treaty, signatories are to determine if a weapon would be “used for genocide, war crimes or by terrorists or organised crime” before authorising its exports to other countries. The treaty also aims to force countries to set up national controls on arms exports.

Support for arms trade control
Supporters of the pact argued that armed violence kills one person every minute worldwide, and that a treaty is needed to halt the uncontrolled flow of weapons and ammunition that fuels wars, atrocities and rights abuses.

Fake tombstones are placed along New York's East River by members of the Control Arms Coalition to coincide with the UN conference on the arms trade treaty. Source:
Fake tombstones are placed along New York's East River by members of the Control Arms Coalition to coincide with the UN conference on the arms trade treaty. Source:

After the pact was signed, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon lauded the pact and said that the adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty “is a victory for the world's people”. Through the control of the arms trade, Ban said that it would help in the efforts to “prevent grave human rights abuses or violations of international humanitarian law”.[2]

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that the treaty was “a major achievement for the United Nations”, and described the treaty as “robust, effective and legally-binding”. The United States Secretary of State John Kerry also described the treaty as “strong, effective, and implementable”.

The Arms Trade Treaty was also opposed by some states and civil groups. The regime in Syria, currently fighting a civil war against armed groups attempting to topple the government, opposed the treaty as it did not refer to the arming of “non-state terrorist groups”. Vitaly Churkin, the Russian Ambassador to the UN, also referred to the absence of a clause prohibiting the supply of weapons to non-state actors.

Some domestic groups are also against the Arms Trade Treaty, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA), a US pro-gun lobby group. The NRA has said that it will fight to prevent the Congress from ratifying the treaty, as the group believes that it will infringe on the right for American citizens to bear arms, even though the Arms Trade Treaty does not regulate domestic arms trade.[3]

Looking forward
The Arms Trade Treaty will take effect after 50 of the 193 UN member states have ratified the treaty, a process which would take up to 2 years.[4] While the treaty may have its shortcomings and loopholes, the fact that countries could come together and commit to arms trade control is a significant achievement.

Thinking question
  1. What are the factors to consider when approving arms exports to other countries?

[1] Arms trade treaty may point a way forward for the U.N.,
[2] Ban salutes 'historic' UN arms treaty,
[3] UN passes historic arms trade treaty by huge majority ,
[4] UN General Assembly adopts arms trade treaty,