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Highlights of the Arms Trade Treaty

04-04-2013 Legal Fact Sheet

Highlights of the Arms Trade Treaty adopted 2 April 2013.

The Final Diplomatic Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) was held at UN headquarters in New York from 18 to 28 March. After nine days of negotiations, UN Member States failed to adopt the text of the Arms Trade Treaty by consensus, however the UN General Assembly adopted the treaty by vote on 2 April 2013. Have a look at the treaty text and a map of countries that voted for, against, or abstained.

The text of the treaty is a historic advance and a worthy response to widespread human suffering resulting from the poorly regulated availability of weapons. The treaty text fulfills the ICRC’s key objectives by covering a broad scope of conventional weapons as well as ammunition and parts and components. It also contains transfer criteria based on respect for international humanitarian law and human rights law.

The ICRC is committed to continuing to work with States, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, as well as with the United Nations and other organizations, to ensure that the Arms Trade Treaty enters into force in the near future.

What follows is a brief overview of key provisions in the ATT.

1. Preamble, Principles, and Object and Purpose: 

The introductory part of the ATT confirms that the instrument has a solid humanitarian basis.

The preamble of the treaty recognizes “that civilians, particularly women and children, account for the vast majority of those affected by armed conflict and armed violence” and “the challenges faced by victims of armed conflict and their need for adequate care, rehabilitation and social and economic inclusion.” The treaty also recalls that States Parties to the treaty are determined to act in accordance with the duty to respect and ensure respect of IHL.” One of the purposes of the treaty is to reduce human suffering by establishing the highest possible common international standards for regulating or improving the regulation of the international trade in conventional arms.

2. Scope:

The scope of the ATT is broad but not comprehensive.  

Article 2 of the treaty sets out the scope of conventional arms which the treaty shall apply. It explicitly refers to the seven major categories of conventional arms already included in the UN Register of Conventional Arms, plus small arms and light weapons. Ammunition, munitions, and parts and components for these conventional arms are also covered in Articles 3 and 4.

Article 2 also establishes the scope of activities to which the treaty shall apply: These are “activities of the international trade” that comprise export, import, transit, trans-shipment, and brokering.

3. Transfer prohibitions and export criteria: 

The ATT sets out two standards for transfers in Articles 6 and 7.

a) Article 6: Transfers of conventional arms, ammunition and parts and components are prohibited if the transfer would violate its relevant international obligations under international agreements to which it is a party. In addition, a State party shall not authorize any transfer if it has knowledge at the time of authorization that the arms or items would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians, or other war crimes defined by international agreements to which the State is a party.

b) Article 7: Where a transfer has not been prohibited pursuant to Article 6, each exporting State party must assess the potential that the arms or items could be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of IHL or international human rights law. Should there be an overriding risk of these or other enumerated negative consequences, the State shall not authorize an export. The term “overriding” would suggest that the risk would have to be significant. It should be noted that this provision applies only to exports, whereas Article 6 applies to all types of transfer covered in the scope of the treaty.

4. Implementation

States Parties must establish and maintain a national control system, including a national control list of weapons and items covered. They must also maintain national records of export authorizations or actual exports, and report on their implementation of the treaty as well as authorized or actual exports and imports of conventional arms  (but not ammunition or parts and components).

A Conference of States parties shall be convened no later than one year after the ATT’s entry into force. The Conference shall, among other functions, review implementation, and consider amendments and issues relating to treaty interpretation.

5. Final provisions

The treaty will open for signature on June 3, 2013 at UN headquarters in New York. It will enter into force 90 days following the 50th ratification, acceptance, or approval with the Depositary.

Amendments may be proposed six years after entry into force of the treaty, and will be adopted by a three-quarters majority if efforts to achieve consensus have failed.

The treaty foresees dispute settlement mechanisms such as mediation, judicial settlement, or arbitration, all subject to mutual consent.