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Curbing the arms trade

Interview: Anke Rasper
September 25, 2014

As the 50th country is expected to ratify the international arms trade treaty, the treaty will finally enter into force 90 days later. Amnesty International's Rasha Abul-Rahim explains the treaty's global significance.

Symbolbild Waffen Waffenhandel Waffenlieferung Rüstung Rüstungsexport
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is the first-ever United Nations treaty that regulates the international arms trade. It's aimed at halting the flow of weapons to countries that are known to use them to commit or facilitate serious human rights abuses.

Along with other groups, Amnesty International has been campaigning for this treaty for more than two decades.

DW: What exactly does this arms trade treaty regulate, and who will control whether arms trading will happen according to the treaty?

Rasha Abdul-Rahim: The treaty regulates a series of conventional weapons that include things like small arms and light weapons, ammunition, explosives, bombs, missiles, tanks, military vehicles, military aircraft, naval ships, et cetera. Under the terms of the treaty, the onus is on the governments to control these weapons and to assess the risk that transferring the arms, the ammunition or the components to another country could be used for serious human rights violations or violations of international humanitarian law.

The treaty asks states to establish and maintain effective national control systems to control the export, the import, the transit of arms. States are also asked to maintain a national control list which they share with other states that are party to the treaty. On the other part of the treaty, states are actually obliged to report annually on their arms exports.

Rasha Abdul-Rahim, weapons expert (Photo: Amnesty International)
Abdul-Rahim says the treaty will be a giant leap forwardImage: amnesty international

For Amnesty International, the most important provision of the treaty is the one to do with human rights. There's a prohibition that states are not allowed to transfer arms if they will be used for serious crimes, like war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and the like. The second part is more of a risk assessment - the states have to conduct a risk assessment to assess whether there's a substantial risk that the arms they're transferring to another country could be used for serious human rights abuses.

When we look at the current situation in Iraq, where there's talk about supplying Kurdish fighters with weapons, how can it be ensured that such arms are not used to commit human rights violations?

Amnesty International is calling for a more preventive approach and strict safeguards to mitigate and remove the substantial risk of arms being used. So before there's any chance that military equipment is authorized, we're asking governments to use concrete, enforceable, transparent and verifiable mechanisms to make sure that the military equipment being supplied isn't likely to be misused, or diverted and then misused. That's really to prevent the people on the ground and prevent serious human rights violations from occurring.

That sounds very theoretical, given that many countries have not signed or will certainly not ratify this agreement, like for instance Syria. Won't arms and equipment continue to be sold to these countries, whether legally or illegally?

To tackle the illicit trade, we first need to control the legal and legitimate trade - most of the weapons that end up in the illegal trade start in the authorized trade. To reduce the risk of diversion for unauthorized uses, and to minimize the risk of loopholes and weaknesses being exploited by unscrupulous arms dealers, we need a global treaty like an arms trade treaty with strong human rights protections and we need that treaty to be effectively implemented.

What difference will it make for people on the ground - who are now victims of conflict - that this treaty will now come into effect this December?

If the treaty is implemented effectively, it could help stop irresponsible arms flows from fueling serious violations that we're seeing in places like Syria and Iraq. It's about making a real difference to people's lives by stopping arms from going to places where they're used for atrocities.

No one is saying the treaty is a panacea. But if it's effectively and robustly implemented, it'll be a giant leap forward in making sure there's greater protection for the hundreds of millions of people whose lives and livelihoods are affected by this.

IS fighter in Syria (Photo: AP/ Raqqa Media Center of the Islamic State group)
Concerns abound over supply of weapons to militant Islamist groups, like the IS in Iraq and SyriaImage: picture alliance/AP Photo

Of course, we want more states to ratify and effectively implement the ATT, but there's already real international momentum building behind this. It's important, obviously, that the world's largest arms-exporting countries are part of the treaty. But it's also important to stress that over half of all [the world's] states have already signed the ATT, and over a quarter have ratified it in a little over a year - which is really a fast pace for such a global treaty.

So if civil society keeps pushing, the most skeptical states will join the treaty eventually. Five of the top ten arms-exporting states have already ratified the treaty - including the UK, Germany, France, Italy and Spain.

What about the United States?

We're often [told], well the US will never ratify. That may be the case, because there's a huge pro-gun lobby inside the US. But, for example, in January 2014, the US issued a new policy directive on conventional arms sales, and that was the first one since the mid-90s. Basically the directive pledges not to export arms where there's a likelihood that the weapons transferred will be likely to be used for genocide or other atrocities, or will be used to violate human rights law or international humanitarian law. This is a positive development and an indication that the US could ratify in the future.

If you look at the mine ban convention that came into force in 1999 - the US had not signed it. But in June 2014, the Obama administration announced the US would no longer produce anti-personnel landmines, or acquire new ones. The US also said it was diligently pursuing other policies that would allow it to agree to the landmine treaty. This is more than 15 years after the treaty came into force. Just the other day (22.09.2014), the US pledged to destroy existing stockpiles of anti-personnel landmines outside the Korean Peninsula. So the arms trade treaty will have an effect, even if it takes a long time.

Rasha Abdul-Rahim is an expert on arms control, security, trade and human rights with Amnesty International in London.