SA/LW and the Arms Trade Treaty

by Zach Wall and Lauren Nicole Hill [ Center for International Stabilization and Recovery ]

Despite the efforts of governments, nongovernmental organizations, and disarmament and human rights activists worldwide, the global arms trade continues to exacerbate the situation caused by conventional weapons and, in particular, small arms/light weapons. Proliferation of SA/LW not only fuels conflict, but also disrupts development in war-ravaged regions. The following article provides an overview of SA/LW-control issues and remediation efforts. It also considers the progress of the international movement in support of an arms-trade treaty.


The co-authors of the Arms Trade Treaty resolution (Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan, Kenya and the United Kingdom) launch the ATT at a meeting as part of the 63rd United Nations General Assembly session, which began 16 September 2009.
Photo courtesy of OXFAM and Control Arms Campaign

The U.N. process to develop the Arms Trade Treaty began in 2006 with the adoption of General Assembly Resolution 61/89, which requested the Secretary-General form a Group of Governmental Experts to investigate the feasibility, scope and mandate of a comprehensive convention and report its findings to the 63rd session of the General Assembly. The international treaty campaign led by activists, NGOs, officials and policy experts, was started years earlier, however, and has grown considerably since its inception. In 2008, thousands of demonstrators around the world voiced their demand for greater accountability of the world’s arms producers and exporters, and for the continued cooperation of the member states to work toward a consensus. As expected, the proposed treaty will cover transfers of a variety of conventional weapons, including small arms/light weapons.

In late October 2008, 147 nations voted in favor of moving forward with the negotiation of a comprehensive U.N. treaty to regulate the trade of conventional weapons worldwide. On 24 December, the General Assembly officially adopted the draft resolution, Towards an Arms Trade Treaty: Establishing Common International Standards for the Import, Export and Transfer of Conventional Arms, calling for an Open-Ended Working Group to convene semi-annually over the next three years “to further consider those elements in the report of the Group of Governmental Experts where consensus could be developed for their inclusion in an eventual legally-binding treaty.”1 The Open-Ended Working Group is not tasked with negotiating the treaty but with examining issues that could be addressed in a treaty. Further action is required by the United Nations General Assembly to actually start the negotiation.

The proposed treaty, known as the ATT, will be the first legally-binding, international agreement of its kind. Proponents claim that existing programs designed to police the arms trade have made important strides, but that stronger controls are essential to confront the growing humanitarian crisis caused by unchecked arms proliferation. Furthermore, non-state actors exploit gaps in existing policy to acquire weapons used to undermine development and human rights.

Small Arms/Light Weapons

Among conventional weapons, SA/LW are particularly problematic as they are relatively easy to use and are easily accessible. The term “small arms” refers to a category of weapons designed for individual use, including pistols, machine and submachine guns, assault rifles, and hand grenades, among others. “Light weapons” typically include conventional weapons that are designed to be operated by a group of two or more individuals (although they may be operated by individual combatants as well). These weapons include heavy machine guns, grenade launchers, anti-tank missiles and rocket systems, and man-portable air-defense systems (also known as MANPADS). Moreover, they are often the weapons of choice of non-state actors, including terrorist organizations and paramilitary insurgents.2

MANPADS and U.S. SA/LW Remediation


SA-7s being prepared for destruction in Montenegro.
Photo courtesy of Ken Underwood, EOD Solutions

MANPADS pose a unique threat to global safety as these light weapons threaten the security of military and civilian aircraft. MANPADS use infrared technology and other advanced technology to deploy surface-to-air missiles directed at aircraft. Despite the magnitude of damage MANPADS yield, they require minimal training to operate, are easily concealed and can be transported in the trunks of cars or even smaller cargo areas. Consequently, they are considered some of the most potentially destabilizing contemporary weapons systems available today and are associated with irregular warfare.3 MANPADS are relatively inexpensive weapons, which rest on the shoulders of their users and weigh as little as 30 pounds (14 kilograms). Conservative estimates suggest there are at least 500,000 MANPADS in the world today, many of which are readily available on the black market to NSAs.4

The issue of MANPADS proliferation is a national-defense priority for the United States. The U.S. Department of State intensified efforts to prevent NSAs from acquiring MANPADS after the attempted shootdown of a commercial airliner leaving Mombassa, Kenya, in late 2002. Since then, the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs’ Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the U.S. Department of State has assisted 27 nations in destroying more than 27,000 MANPADS missiles and securing those that remain in national stocks. PM/WRA works to keep weapons from re-circulating and destabilizing hard-won but fragile peace in post-conflict areas where the threat of illicit SA/LW and MANPADS falling into the hands of NSAs is most acute. For example, in 2003–04, PM/WRA provided technical assistance in destroying 33,000 SA/LW, including 45 MANPADS in post-civil war Liberia.5

The United States remains committed to combating illicit arms trafficking in conflict and post-conflict areas around the world. PM/WRA strives to limit the access of terrorist or criminal groups to conventional weapons and munitions from national stockpiles or abandoned caches. Since 2001, PM/WRA has assisted with SA/LW-remediation efforts in 36 countries, securing weapons stockpiles and destroying 1.3 million excess weapons and more than 50,000 tons of ordnance. However, weapons destruction addresses only one aspect of the larger problem, and arms-control approaches that merely focus on keeping stockpiles secure and destroying excess weapons are incomplete. For this reason, the U.S. government endorses a “cradle to the grave” approach to weapons exports and imports. The United States regulates brokering activities on all of its weapons, and U.S. brokering laws and regulations are “considered the most robust in the world.”6

International efforts to combat the global SA/LW problem have resulted in strengthening controls on the export and transfer of SA/LW, including MANPADS. Non-proliferation strategies in these regions help to secure weapons, ensure that governments have policies on control and proliferation, and reduce the number of MANPADS available to NSAs.4

The United Nations and Illicit Arms Trade

The issue of illegal small-arms proliferation first came under the spotlight of the United Nations during the mid-1990s. Prompted by the General Assembly, the Secretary-General formed a Group of Governmental Experts to investigate the humanitarian implications of the illicit SA/LW trade. Then, in July 2001, the U.N. Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects was held in New York, and the participating states agreed to adopt the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat, and Eradicate the Illicit Arms Trade in All Its Aspects.6 The Programme of Action aims to curb illicit small-arms trafficking at the national, regional and global levels. Since its implementation, the program has served as an important framework for preventing international illegal small-arms trade.

At the United Nations Conference to Review Progress Made in the Implementation of the Programme of Action, 26 June—7 July 2006, then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan said of the United Nations’ arms-control pursuits, “Our targets remain unscrupulous arms brokers, corrupt officials, drug-trafficking syndicates, criminals and others who bring death and mayhem into our communities, who ruin lives and destroy in minutes the labor of years. To halt the destructive march of armed conflict, we must stop such purveyors of death.”7 In the summer of 2008, a third semi-annual meeting convened, marking the seventh year of the PoA’s implementation. Despite significant strides since 2001, many, including Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, have noted the generally slow progress in adequately addressing the Programme of Action’s national-, regional-, and global-level objectives. The Secretary-General previously reported, “At the global level, States were unable to agree to substantive outcomes of the biannual meetings,” owing in part to the fact that the PoA “does not provide a specific framework to facilitate international assistance and cooperation among states. Hence, states have had difficulty finding cooperative structures and linking needs with resources.”8

Working Toward a Treaty

Presently, a single, comprehensive, legally-binding instrument for regulating the international transfer of conventional weapons does not exist. For pragmatic reasons, existing conventional weapons treaties, such as the Ottawa Convention9 and the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons10 (which includes weapons with “indiscriminant” effects), are limited in scope and regulate only specific types of arms trafficking. At the regional level, many governments have implemented agreements aimed at curbing conventional weapons proliferation in recent years. Some of these agreements are the Central American Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers11 (2006), the ECOWAS Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons, Their Ammunition and other Related Materials12 (2006), and The Nairobi Protocol for the Prevention, Control and Reduction of Small Arms and Light Weapons in the Great Lakes Region and the Horn of Africa13 (2005), and have been met with varying degrees of success.14 Nevertheless, an internationally-recognized and legally-binding measure carrying the clout of the Ottawa Convention or the recently adopted Convention on Cluster Munitions15 has not yet been formulated. However, campaigners for an arms-trade treaty have made significant headway since 2006.

The Control Arms campaign—a collaborative effort of the NGOs Amnesty International, Oxfam International and the International Action Network on Small Arms—has worked toward the goal of a global arms-trade treaty since October 2003. The treaty envisioned by the Control Arms campaign would hold states accountable for international weapons transfers, ensuring that those weapons should not be used to commit human-rights abuses, either directly or indirectly. The text of the ATT, therefore, should include stipulations about the use or likely use of arms.16

Feasibility, Scope and Parameters

In December 2006, due in part to the effort of international activists, the U.N. General Assembly passed Resolution 61/89.17 A majority of nations (153) voted in favor of the resolution, which prompted the Secretary-General to (a) solicit member states' views on a speculative arms-trade treaty and (b) form a Group of Governmental Experts representing 28 countries to investigate the “feasibility, scope and parameters” of such a treaty. This group convened for three sessions and, in August 2008, nearly issued a final report18 with its findings.

Ninety-six states submitted views on the ATT, and among them, 89 concluded that such an instrument was feasible, but voiced concerns about the obstacles in implementing an attainable treaty. These reservations included, for example, the probable reluctance of major arms exporters to comply with a treaty, the inability of some states to live up to the challenges of implementing the treaty, and the overall task of crafting an ATT capable of satisfying the particular interests of all member states.19 The feasibility of an arms-trade treaty is dependent on both its scope and its parameters. According to the Group of Governmental Experts’ final report, to be feasible, the proposed treaty would need to have “clear definitions and be fair, objective, balanced, non-political, non-discriminatory and universal within the framework of the United Nations.”18 Therefore, an international consensus on what types of weapons should be included, as well as what kinds of transactions constitute “transfer,” (i.e., the scope of the treaty) will be essential to the negotiation of the treaty. The Group of Governmental Experts concluded that the parameters of the ATT should be consistent with the existing international human rights laws, and it should not infringe on the sovereign rights of individual states. The Group of Governmental Experts also determined that a realistic framework should take into account issues such as terrorism, organized crime, socioeconomic development and regional stability. Furthermore, the group recommended national annual transparency reports be written and presented to members similar to those required by the Ottawa Convention and the CCW.

2009 and Onward

Following the release of the Group of Governmental Experts report, the mobilization of international support for a second ATT resolution continued with renewed energy during the 63rd session of the U.N. General Assembly. A week of action took place 13—19 September 2008, during which disarmament campaigners from all over the world held demonstrations and urged member states to vote in favor of continuing the development of an international treaty. On 21 October 2008, days before the vote, Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa issued a video message urging member states to “end the slaughter” wrought by the international arms trade, announcing, “All around the world, people are watching, waiting and holding you to account. They are demanding an ATT with human rights at its heart. It is down to each and every one of you to see it done.”20


Control Arms campaigners hold envelopes containing Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s message outside the U.N. headquarters in New York City. The Control Arms campaign is an international campaign run by Oxfam International, Amnesty International and the International Action Network on Small Arms. It calls for a strong treaty to stop the transfer of weapons which fuel conflict, poverty and human rights abuses.
Photo courtesy of OXFAM and Control Arms Campaign

At the 63rd session of the U.N. General Assembly on 23 October 2008, 133 nations voted in favor of the new resolution, while one state abstained and 119 opposed. The decision demonstrated continued international support for the development and eventual implementation of the treaty. The U.N. process, which is open to all member states, will continue over the next three years with semi-annual meetings of the Open-Ended Working Group. During this phase, the Open-Ended Working Group will convene for six one-week sessions to consider the recommendations of the Group of Governmental Experts and address key concerns of the treaty’s scope and implementation. The first of these sessions took place 2–6 March 2009, in New York City, and was attended by numerous member-state representatives, including the United States. According to a statement the U.S. representative21 made to the meeting, the United States is planning to be active in developing effective outcomes from the findings of the Open-Ended Working Group. However, it is still too early to determine whether “the discussions show promise for effective and positive contribution to solving the problems” of the illicit arms trade and SA/LW proliferation.5

The second session of the Open-Ended Working Group convened in New York City in July 2009. The group will presented a report of its discussions to the 64th session of the U.N. General Assembly this fall.22 The ATT is still in the early stages of formation and the discussions will continue for a minimum of three years. The efforts of millions of supporters across the globe have not gone unnoticed, and the ATT’s progress has been apparent, especially in 2008. At least one important question for the future remains and it involves the role the United States, a global leader in SA/LW remediation efforts, will play in the treaty-negotiation process. Nevertheless, the relative success of the Ottawa Convention and the adoption of the Convention on Cluster Munitions in 2008 indicate that the international community remains committed to waging the war against unchecked weapons proliferation.

Biographies

Zach Wall was an Editorial Assistant at the Center for International Stabilization and Recovery from September 2007 through May 2009. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in sociology from James Madison University in 2009, and is on tour with his band for the summer.


Lauren Nicole Hill has been a part of the CISR team as an Editorial Assistant since August 2008. She will graduate from James Madison University in 2010 with a Bachelor of Arts in communication studies with a concentration in public relations and a minor in Italian.


Endnotes

  1. "Towards an Arms Trade Treaty." The United Nations. http://www.un.org/disarmament/convarms/ArmsTradeTreaty/html/ATTMeetings2009-11.shtml. Accessed 16 June 2009.
  2. Unregulated Arms Availability, Small Arms & Light Weapons, and the UN Process. The International Committee of the Red Cross. 26 May 2006. http://www.icrc.org/Web/Eng/siteeng0.nsf/html/small-arms-paper-250506 Accessed 29 January 2009.
  3. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, irregular warfare is defined as “a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations. IW favors indirect and asymmetric approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capabilities, in order to erode an adversary’s power, influence, and will.”
  4. "Man-Portable Air Defense System (MANPADS) Proliferation." Federation of American Scientists. http://www.fas.org/programs/ssp/asmp/MANPADS.html. Accessed 11 June 2009.
  5. E-mail interview with Laurie Freeman, U.S. Department of State. Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement. 12 March 2009.
  6. Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects. United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, 9-20 July 2001. http://disarmament.un.org/CAB/poa.html. Accessed 29 January 2009.
  7. Report of the United Nations Conference to Review Progress Made in the Implementation of the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects. United Nations General Assembly. 12 July 2006. http://www.un.org/events/smallarms2006/pdf/rc.9-e.pdf. Accessed 29 January 2009.
  8. Small Arms: Report of the Secretary General. United Nations Security Council. 17 April 2008. http://www.un.org/disarmament/convarms/SALW/Docs/SGReportonSmallArms2008.pdf#page=4. Accessed 29 January 2009.
  9. Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, Oslo, Norway. 18 September 1997. The document was opened for signature in Ottawa, Canada, 3 December 1997, commonly known as the Ottawa Convention. http://www.icbl.org/index.php/icbl/Treaties/MBT/Treaty-Text-in-Many-Languages/English. Accessed 29 January 2009.
  10. Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects, Geneva, Switzerland, 10 October 1980. This Convention is also referred to as the CCW or CCCW. http://disarmament.un.org/ccw. Accessed 29 January 2009.
  11. Central American Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers.http://www.un.org/events/smallarms2006/pdf/rc.wp.6-e.pdf. Accessed 18 June 2009.
  12. ECOWAS Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons, Their Ammunition and other Related Materials. http://www.iansa.org/regions/wafrica/documents/CONVENTION-CEDEAO-ENGLISH.PDF. Accessed 3 February 2009.
  13. The Nairobi Protocol for the Prevention, Control and Reduction of Small Arms and Light Weapons in the Great Lakes Region and the Horn of Africa. http://www.saferafrica.org/DocumentsCentre/Books/NairobiProtocol/nairobiProtocolEng.php. Accessed 3 February 2009.
  14. Frequently Asked Questions on the Arms Trade and the Arms Trade Treaty. Control Arms. April 2008. http://www.controlarms.org/en/search?SearchableText=Frequently+Asked+Questions+on+the+Arms+Trade
    and+the+Arms+Trade+Treaty
    . Accessed 29 January 2009.
  15. Convention on Cluster Munitions, Dublin, Ireland, 19-30 May 2008. Also referred to as CCM. Proposed complete ban on cluster munitions with victim assistance and decontamination information standards. The convention opened for signature, Oslo, Norway, December 2008. www.clusterconvention.org. Accessed 29 January 2009.
  16. "Golden Rules for an Arms Trade Treaty." Control Arms. http://www.controlarms.org/en/arms-trade-treaty/golden-rules-for-an-arms-trade-treaty. Accessed 29 January 2009.
  17. UNGA A/C.1/61/L.55: "Towards an Arms Trade Treaty: Establishing Common International Standards for the Import, Export and Transfer of Conventional Arms." United Nations General Assembly. 12 October 2006. http://www.controlarms.org/en/documents%20and%20files/un-resolution-61-89-towards-an-arms-trade-treaty. Accessed 29 January 2009.
  18. Report of the Group of Governmental Experts to Examine the Feasibility, Scope and Draft Parameters for a Comprehensive, Llegally Binding Instrument Establishing Common International Standards for the Import, Export and Transfer of Conventional Arms. United Nations General. 26 August 2008. http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A%2F63%2F334+&Submit=Search&Lang=E. Accessed 29 January 2009.
  19. Parker, Sarah. Analysis of States’ Views on an Arms Trade Treaty. United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. October 2007. http://www.unidir.org/pdf/activites/pdf2-act349.pdf. Accessed 29 January 2009.
  20. "Archbishop Sends Control Arms Message to Every Nation." Control Arms. 21 October 2008. http://www.controlarms.org/en/media/2008/2018it-is-time-to-end-the-slaughter2019-desmond. Accessed 29 2009.
  21. "United States Statement: ATT Session One." The United Nations. http://www.un.org/disarmament/convarms/ArmsTradeTreaty/docs/OEWG09_S1_statements/US-5Mar.PDF. Accessed 18 June 2009.
  22. UNGA A/C.1/63/L.39: "Towards an Arms Trade Treaty: Establishing Common International Standards for the Import, Export and Transfer of Conventional Arms." United Nations General Assembly. 17 October 2008. http://www.iansa.org/un/documents/ATT_1com08.pdf. Accessed 29 January 2009.

Contact Information

Zach Wall
Editorial Assistant
The Journal of ERW and Mine Action
Mine Action Information Center
Center for International Stabilization and Recovery
James Madison University
E-mail: maic@jmu.edu

Lauren Nicole Hill
Editorial Assistant
The Journal of ERW and Mine Action
Mine Action Information Center
Center for International Stabilization and Recovery
James Madison University
E-mail: maic@jmu.edu

Stacy B. Davis
Public Engagement
Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement
U.S. Department of State
Bureau of Political-Military Affairs
SA-3, Suite 6100 (PM/WRA)
2121 Virginia Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20522 / USA
Tel: +1 202 663 0100
Fax: +1 202 663 0090
E-mail: DavisSB@state.gov
Web site: http://www.state.gov/t/pm/wra