In a historic vote at the UN General Assembly First Committee on November 7, member states passed Resolution L.11 in favor of finalizing the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in March 2013.
An overwhelming 157 countries voted in favor of the resolution with only 18 abstentions and no oppositions. Out of the six biggest arms exporters, China voted in favor of the resolution, along with the US, UK, Germany and France with only Russia abstaining.
Although the resolution itself does not guarantee the final adoption of an ATT, it is to date the biggest demonstration yet of a broad international consensus in support of a legally binding treaty regulating the global arms trade.
The idea that imports and exports of weapons should be regulated by common standards is not entirely new. Efforts to regulate the conventional arms trade have been on the international agenda for a long time.
One of the earlier efforts was made by the League of Nations, when in 1925 it introduced a draft convention on the arms trade. This treaty, however, was never adopted.
During the Cold War, both the Eastern and Western blocs set up separate mechanisms to coordinate the arms trade internally and maintain their spheres of influence. Arms transfers were used to finance proxy wars and as political leverage to prevent the expansion of rivals.
Although multilateral institutions to regulate arms exports did exist, they were primarily intended to prevent arms flowing to the opposing side. For instance, NATO's establishment of the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM) was an attempt to stop the export of military or dual-use items to the Soviet Bloc. Back then, national security interests remained paramount.
The concept that drives the inception of an ATT is very different. Traditional concern for national security interests is no longer the primary reason to regulate the arms trade. What motivates the ATT negotiation is the emphasis of human suffering that is directly connected to the transfer of weapons. It is estimated that every minute at least one person dies from armed violence around the world. Countless more have their lives torn apart either because of conflict, poverty and disease that are fueled by unregulated or poorly regulated arms transfers.
The establishment of an ATT will have a positive effect in regulating the flow of these weapons to areas of conflict and instability that are often on the brink of a humanitarian disaster.
Upon its entry into force, the ATT will require each state, before authorizing an arms transfer, to undertake an assessment based on the risk whether the arms transfer could be used to facilitate, among other things, "serious violations" of international humanitarian law, international human rights law, or to commit terrorist acts. If the risk is considered "over-riding," then a country is required to refuse such an arms transfer.
There is more. Whereas small arms and light weapons are not the traditional concerns of arms export control regimes until very recently, they have been included as a major component in the scope of ATT. The logic is simple: these weapons kill. Much effort and attention has been given to the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, but, ironically, what brings death to millions is not these "absolute weapons," but weapons as small as a handgun or rifle.
To date the road that leads to an ATT has been quite complex. Since its inception in 2006 in the form of UNGA Resolution 61/89, the ATT initiative has been through a group of governmental experts, two sessions of an open-ended working group meeting and four preparatory committee meetings, culminating in the July 2012 Diplomatic Conference.
Although in July 2012 states failed to adopt a treaty, the conference is believed to have achieved a fundamental breakthrough by putting forward a draft treaty text, coded CRP.1, which provides a basis for the next round of final negotiations in March 2013.
With the progress made so far on the substance of the draft treaty, the momentum garnered through the recent UN First Committee resolution and the flexibility the Obama administration will be able to exhibit during its second term, there is much hope that the next round of ATT negotiations in 2013 will finally produce a treaty that many around the world are crying for.
The author is a Fulbright fellow at the Center for International and Security Studies, University of Maryland and Ph.D candidate at Tsinghua University. firstname.lastname@example.org