Humanitarian law regulates the rules of war, ranging from the protection of civilians to the treatment of prisoners of war. The main treaties which govern humanitarian law are the Geneva Conventions, which were finalised after World War II. However, the different types and forms of armed conflicts that have gradually emerged since then have meant that the Geneva Conventions can no longer be used in isolation. Other international treaties have increased in relevance when regulating the rules and conduct of war.
One main activity that has become prevalent in the conduct of war is arms trade. The absence of any type of regulation has meant that most weapons have been easily accessible in conflicts. It can be argued that this has aggravated conflicts at times.
According to Amnesty International: ‘At least 500,000 people die every year on average and millions more are displaced and abused as result of armed violence and conflict’.
The lack of arms trade regulation means that a wide range of weapons have been readily available in armed conflict and criminal activities. There was much criticism as to why there were strict regulations on items such as bananas, yet there were no rules to govern weapon trading. It is obvious that when compared to the banana trade, the trading of weapons carries more risk and should receive more international attention. The abuse of arms trade is linked to the catastrophic acts of violence, corruption, rape, genocide and war crimes in armed conflict. The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) was created as a result.
Arms Trade Treaty
The law surrounding arms trade has been developing for over 20 years and has taken a total of six resolutions, starting from 2006 leading up to the adoption of the ATT.
The landmark ATT was finally adopted by the General Assembly on 2 April 2013. A total of 155 states voted in favour of adopting the treaty, while 22 states abstained and three states opposed.
The treaty opened for signatories on 3 June 2013 and over 100 states have signed it so far. Although this shows that the treaty has a lot of international backing, only a total of seven states have actually ratified the treaty. The treaty will only be binding and enforceable 90 days after the 50th state has ratified the treaty. Taking into consideration the substantial amount of signatures, it should not be long until the treaty is enforceable. It is still early days so there is still time for more states to ratify the treaty. However, the ratification process is dependent on domestic laws. The way that one state chooses to ratify the treaty will differ from another state; therefore it is not easy to predict how soon the treaty will become enforceable.
The enforceability of the ATT will prevent the abuse of legal weapons and thus will hopefully help to prevent corruption and violence. It outlines the international standards for trading conventional arms, ammunition and parts to which signatories must comply.
What will the Arms Trade Treaty do?
The landmark ATT is intended to regulate the global arms trade in order to prevent illicit weapons from getting into the hands of warlords and terrorists, for example. The treaty covers conventional arms, including battle tanks; large-calibre artillery systems; combat aircraft; warships and missile launchers. Small arms and light weapons are also covered by the treaty.
Prior to the ATT there was no document outlining the regulation of arms trade. It is in place to inhibit the abuse of arms trade resulting in acts of genocide, human rights abuses, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Is it useful?
There is possibly still a long way to go before the treaty is enforceable but, that does not mean that it is redundant in its current form. The adoption of the treaty by the UN enables states to use the treaty as guidance on how to deal with arms trade in the meantime.
There has been major support for the ATT from the UN, which has offered to assist with the treaty’s implementation. The UN Trust Facility Supporting Cooperation on Arms Regulation (UNSCAR) was set up for this purpose. The trust facility means that states who may not have enough resources for the implementation of the ATT will receive the required assistance to do so. It makes it easier for such states to build mechanisms and strategies towards the implementation of the ATT.
The ATT will not abolish all arms trade but it will aid individual states in the assessment of the risks that certain arms possess.
The treaty cannot be fully put into practice until it is enforceable, but it has great potential to affect many aspects of armed conflict. It has the potential to stop the influx of illegal and unnecessary weapons which may be used to kill innocent civilians. It can also help to spin out and simmer down the violence in armed conflict. It may seem farfetched but the treaty has the potential to also change the conduct of war. If weapons are no longer easily accessible, there may be fewer atrocities and arbitrary attacks in conflict.
The ATT not only works as a key international law instrument complementing humanitarian law, it also recognises the humane aspect involved in conflict by placing some moral obligation on states. As a result of the ATT, states have to take into consideration the risks that certain weapons may possess, and assess their obligation towards the treaty. The treaty requires that states think outside of the context of law to consider the consequences and risks that an arms trade transaction may have.
However, because of this miniature subjective element, the treaty has granted states power to decide what weapons are appropriate to export and import. Consequently, the treaty is quite vague and may not be robust enough to deal with the opposing ways of different nations.