UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon spoke of a "victory for the people of the world," and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle of "a milestone in global efforts to ensure arms controls and security."
Matthias John, Amnesty International's defense expert, told DW the Arms Trade Treaty represents a "truly historic achievement."
Subject to strict rules
Approval of the first international treaty on the global arms trade is indeed an historical decision taken by the UN General Assembly. Trade in conventional weapons, from guns to tanks, will now be subject to strict rules.
Negotiations had failed twice before, owing to resistance from countries including North Korea, Syria and Iran, as well as Russia, China and the United States. However, although the UN Conference that drafted the treaty could only decide on it unanimously, the UN General Assembly required just a two-thirds majority.
The treaty prohibits the export of weapons if such trade violates arms embargoes or if the weapons could be used in genocide and crimes against humanity.
National control systems
If, for instance, the agreement were already in force today, Russia and Iran would not be able to supply the Syrian regime with weapons. The controls are designed to ensure that arms will not be used in human rights abuses, terrorism, or violations of humanitarian law.
The treaty calls for the establishment of national control systems to regulate the import and export of conventional arms, ammunition and weapon parts. It also controls arms dealers.
If such rules had existed several years earlier, it might have been easier, after the fall of the Libyan dictator Gaddafi, to trace the routes German assault rifles took to land in the hands of Gaddafi's troops.
But the Arms Trade Treaty will now need to prove its effectiveness. "We will strive to enforce the treaty as soon as possible," Westerwelle said in New York. For that to happen, 50 states must ratify the treaty – a move some experts believe could happen by June.
However, some disillusionment is already clouding the joy over the Arms Trade Treaty. "I would have liked to have seen see more content and more restrictions," Rolf Mützenich, the foreign affairs spokesman of Germany's center-left Social Democrat parliamentary group, told DW. In particular, he said, the licensing process for arms exports, which remains in the hands of national governments, and verification of the controls were not fully clarified. "These are things that would have made such a treaty much stronger," Mützenich added.
Amnesty defense expert Matthias John agrees there's room to improve the control mechanisms. "We need better measures for transparency and better reporting, and we would need to impose sanctions if the treaty were violated," he said, adding that that now is the time "for states to adapt their own rules." The Arms Trade Treaty doesn't interfere with countries' domestic legislation. What is planned is for the UN members to issue a yearly report on all processes and progress they have achieved in arms control.
'In the spirit of the agreement'
The provisions don't restrict German arms exports. Existing EU export regulations and national German rules go further than the new international agreement. Yet Matthias John argues that Germany "has a duty to tighten German arms export practices in the spirit of this agreement."
After the United States and Russia, Germany is the world's third-largest arms exporter, with a global market share of seven percent. The country's top two buyers are the Netherlands and the USA, followed by the United Arab Emirates in third place. Further down the list are Algeria (eighth), Saudi Arabia (12th) and Egypt (18th).
"Human rights must be given a greater priority," John said. "Other criteria such as the notorious new 'Merkel doctrine,' which stresses foreign and security issues, seem to be more important." If Germany acts in the spirit of this agreement, that should no longer be the case.