Governments fail to agree on an Arms Trade Treaty—again

28 March 2013
New York

On 28 March, governments failed to adopt the text of an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) by consensus for a second time. The final treaty text prohibits the sale of arms if there is a risk that the weapons could be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law. It was negotiated among all member states of the United Nations. It was intended for adoption by consensus, giving each state an effective veto over its passage.

Iran, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and Syria objected to the adoption of the text, citing among other things the text’s "imbalance" between weapons importers and exporters.

The delegation of Mexico, in an attempt to salvage the conference, declared that there is no  definition of consensus inside the UN and encouraged the President to proceed with adoption of the text. A number of states supported this proposal, but the governments of Russia and Iran objected. The President concluded that consensus had not been reached and thus the treaty could not be adopted.

Kenya on behalf of Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States introduced a draft resolution to move forward to the General Assembly for the adoption of the text of the treaty text. The draft resolution says the General Assembly adopts the ATT, requests the Secretary-General to open it for signature on 3 June 2013, and calls upon states to consider signing and ratifying the treaty.

The General Assembly resolution establishing this negotiating conference also established a meeting of the General Assembly on 2 April, to which the President of the negotiating conference is to report. It is anticipated that the General Assembly resolution circulated by Kenya et al will be considered at that meeting.

States have been working on the development of an ATT since 2006. The first negotiating conference in July 2012 failed to adopt a treaty text after the United States called for “more time” to work on the text. This time, Iran, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Syria blocked the final text’s adoption.

The rule of consensus meant that the countries pushing for a strong treaty made several compromises during negotiations in order to bring more skeptical states on board. Thus the treaty text contains substantial limitations and loopholes. Its scope is narrow, providing only for consideration of a limited number of weapon systems and transfer activities. Its provisions covering ammunition, munitions, parts, and components are not comprehensive and it does not provide for any increased transparency in the international arms trade.

Ray Acheson, Director of Reaching Critical Will, noted: “Many civil society organizations and frustrated governments have repeatedly warned that blind faith in, and strict interpretation of, the consensus rule have badly damaged UN-affiliated disarmament and arms control processes. The abuse of the rule of consensus by a handful of states has played a significant role in preventing progress on reducing the human suffering caused by weapons. The failure to adopt an Arms Trade Treaty is just the latest example of this.”

The last multilateral treaty on weapons that was adopted by consensus within the UN was the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1992. Since then, the international community has failed over and over again to adopt treaties with this rule.

In stark contrast to the failures of the consensus rule, significant achievements such as the Mine Ban Treaty (1997) and the Convention on Cluster Munitions (2008) have been made when avoiding such rules. These treaties have banned a specific category of weapons and created strong norms of behaviour among the international community. Despite not being negotiated by consensus and not yet having yet reached universal adherence, these treaties have led to a virtual halt or a significant decrease in the global trade in the weapons they banned, even among states that still refuse to officially join the treaty.

Legally-binding regulations on the international arms trade would be an important measure for impacting armed conflict and armed violence around the world. Conventional arms, especially those transferred without regulation, continue to be used to kill or maim civilians; violate human rights; facilitate sexual violence and trafficking; obstruct economic and social development; impede post-conflict rehabilitation and reconstruction; and have other severe consequences that can persist for many years.

Beatrice Fihn, Manager of Reaching Critical Will, argued: “The failure to adopt an Arms Trade Treaty shows that the international community could do better by avoiding the rule of consensus and should refrain from putting such conditions on any future disarmament and arms control negotiations.”

For more information:

New York: Ray Acheson
Geneva: Beatrice Fihn


Text of Arms Trade Treaty
Other documents and statements from the conference
Arms Trade Treaty Monitor
, providing civil society perspectives on the negotiations