As U.N. Arms Trade Treaty Gains Momentum, U.S. Should Pursue Swift Ratification

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By Kirsten Harmon*

After years of intensive negotiations, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Arms Trade Treaty on April 2, 2013, by an overwhelming vote of 154 to 3 (with 23 States abstaining). Only Syria, Iran, and North Korea opposed.

This groundbreaking agreement is the first to establish binding common standards for the international transfer of all conventional arms.

It expressly prohibits Parties from authorizing international transfers of conventional arms that would violate measures adopted by the U.N. Security Council; contravene the Party’s obligations under other relevant international arms control agreements; or would be used to commit genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, or other war crimes. Parties are also required to refrain from authorizing transfers that would undermine peace and security; commit or facilitate serious violations of international human rights or international humanitarian law, acts of terrorism, or organized crime.

Since opening for signature on June 3, 2013, the Arms Trade Treaty has gained astonishing momentum. More than one hundred countries have signed, including the United States. Seven States have already ratified the treaty, including Costa Rica, Iceland, Mexico, and New Zealand. This suggests that the Arms Trade Treaty may be well on its way to a rapid entry into force.

As the world’s largest arms producer, accounting for an estimated 80 percent of all arms exports, the United States’ signature is of tremendous significance. The Obama Administration’s decision to sign the treaty is all the more commendable in light of the outspoken—albeit misplaced—opposition of the National Rifle Association.

Secretary of State John Kerry addressed this opposition head-on in his remarks at the treaty’s signing, stating that “[w]hat this treaty does is simple…It requires other countries to create and enforce the kind of strict national export controls that the United States already has in place. And I emphasize here we are talking about the kind of export controls that for decades have not diminished one iota our ability in the United States as Americans to exercise our rights under the constitution – not one iota of restriction in the last decades as we have applied our standards.”

This is an important first step to defusing the misconceptions about the Arms Trade Treaty that have led the NRA and even some members of the U.S. Congress to oppose it. Indeed, many more such clarifications will surely be needed if the treaty is to be ratified in anything close to a timely manner.

However, care should be taken to ensure that the idea behind Secretary Kerry’s words is not used to forestall ratification, based on the theory that signing on to common international standards would somehow dilute or conflict with the rigorous protections that the U.S. already adheres to. A similar premise has underpinned the United States’ reluctance to ratify many human rights treaties. To take a similar line in the case of the Arms Trade Treaty would be both a lost opportunity for the United States and a major impediment to the treaty’s effectiveness.

A lost opportunity because, as Secretary Kerry pointed out, an international instrument that makes conventional arms less accessible to terrorists, rogue actors, and those who would use them to “carry out the world’s worst crimes” would be a boon not only to U.S. national security interests but to its foreign policy interests as well. Syria is but one of the many examples that come to mind—indeed the slaughter of civilians in Syria overlapped with much of the Arms Trade Treaty negotiations, casting into stark relief the grievous consequences of the current lack of a coherent framework to regulate the movement of conventional weapons across borders.

This would also be a lost opportunity from an economic standpoint. It is in the United States’ own interest as the world’s leading arms exporter to ensure that its competitors—which continue to grow in size and number—are bound by the same kinds of standards that the United States adheres with respect to who they can and cannot sell to as a matter of law.

Also, although the Arms Trade Treaty’s entry into force is not expressly conditioned upon its ratification by the world’s major arms exporting countries, their buy-in will be a major factor in determining how effective this ambitious instrument can really be in saving human lives.

The United States should ratify the Arms Trade Treaty because if it does not, even on the grounds that the United States already boasts the “gold standard” in arms export controls, this will still give other States that do not have those controls in place the license to do the same.

Not only would such a result undermine the Treaty’s object and purpose of establishing universal standards in order to eliminate the loopholes that now allow conventional weapons to find their way into the hands of actors who use them to violate international law. But also, the United States has far more leverage and legitimacy to convince other major arms producers to abide by the treaty once it becomes a Party itself.

The Arms Trade Treaty is an important contribution to global peace and security—as the more than one hundred countries that have already signed it clearly recognize. The United States should seize this opportunity to take a leadership role among global arms producers and bolster the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Arms Trade Treaty, by working toward prompt ratification. 


* Ms. Harmon is a 2014 J.D. Candidate at the Georgetown University Law Center. She worked for the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress in Costa Rica from 2009-2012, and in that capacity served as an advisor on the Arms Trade Treaty to the Permanent Mission of Costa Rica to the United Nations.