Appraisal of Arms Trade Treaty

Published: 18th April 2013 07:27 AM  |   Last Updated: 18th April 2013 07:27 AM   |  A+A-

The international community on April 2 approved the Arms Trade Treaty, which had been in the making for several years, by a vote of 154 in favour, 3 against (Syria, Iran, and North Korea), and 23 abstentions including Russia, China and India. The treaty seeks to establish the “highest possible international standards” to regulate international trade in conventional weapons and to prevent illicit trade therein in order to contribute to peace and security, reduce human suffering and promote transparency and responsible action by states in international trade in conventional weapons.

The scope of the treaty extends to international trade in eight categories of conventional weapons as well as their ammunition, parts and components. These eight categories of weapons comprise battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and launchers, and small arms and light weapons. 

Each State party is required to establish a control system, including a national control list of items covered by it, governing its exports of conventional weapons. The treaty specifically prohibits each State party from transferring the specified conventional weapons if the same violates UN sanctions under Chapter VII of its Charter, in particular arms embargoes, contravenes the exporting State’s international obligations under its international agreements, and if it “has knowledge” that the said transfers would be used for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, attacks against civilians, etc.

In addition to the aforesaid specific prohibitions the treaty calls upon each State party to refrain from such exports if in its assessment it fears that there is an “over-riding risk” that these could undermine peace and security or be used to commit human rights violations, or be used for acts which constitute offences relating to terrorism and organised crime under international conventions to which it is a party. In order to better enable the concerned State party to make the aforesaid assessment the importing State party is required to provide all information to the former which may include “end use or end user documentation”.

Each State party is further required to maintain records of the measures put in place by it for its national control system and share the same with the Secretariat along with the specifics to be provided annually of the exports and imports of the eight categories of conventional weapons effected by it.

The treaty has secured widespread approbation from numerous NGOs like Amnesty International and Oxfam, and some leaders like David Cameron have hailed it as a “landmark agreement” that would “ease” human suffering. Though the US government has been supportive many in the country influenced by the powerful National Rifle Association fearful that it would lead to tougher gun control laws are opposed to it and it is doubtful if the Senate would approve it. Many third world countries have also supported it in the hope that it would make the illicit movement of weapons more difficult.

However, there are some who feel that the treaty does not go far enough and it merely legitimises arms trade for it is neither a disarmament treaty nor a weapons ban but a conventional weapon transfer and licensing regime. India was compelled to abstain on the vote for the treaty as it did not  address its concerns on the acquisition of arms by terrorists and the imbalance in terms of obligations between exporting and importing states.

The fact that the treaty is “weak” on terrorism and unlawful non-state actors and does little to effectively plug the illicit trafficking in conventional weapons is clear from the absence of any specific and mandatory prohibition on transfers to such elements.

Thus the treaty will not hinder Pakistan’s supply of arms to terrorist outfits or put an end to the flow of such supplies to various non-state actors in Syria from a host of regional and extra-regional states.

The argument that there is an imbalance in the obligations between States parties which are exporters and importers of conventional weapons is also correct as the former can at any stage withhold such exports on the basis of their own judgment which may be entirely subjective. Moreover, importing States parties are liable to fairly intrusive questioning relating to end use of the weapons imported. 

However, for large importers like India it is unlikely that weapons exports would be suspended midstream as the massive commercial interests at stake will decisively colour the judgment required to be exercised by the exporting country in favour of continuing the exports. Smaller importing countries are much more likely to be adversely affected by midstream suspension of such exports .

The interests of exporting countries have been protected by a specific exclusion from the provisions of the treaty “to the international movement of conventional arms” by them for their use provided they remain under their ownership. Notwithstanding the logic of India’s abstention on the vote on the treaty we could consider signing it sometime in the future as it constitutes a step in the right direction and in practical terms is unlikely to be used to deny arms transfers to us. This should, of course, only be done after the government has assessed and put in place adequate protections in its regulations governing defence contracts so as to ensure their long term stability and predictability.

As a State party to the treaty India would be better placed to work towards rectifying its shortcomings through inclusion of provisions which would bring a better balance in the obligations of arms exporting and importing states and which would effectively plug the possibility of arms transfers to terrorists and unauthorised non state actors. 

Finally, our inability to bring around more countries to our views would seem to indicate that we were, perhaps, overly focused on the major players in the game.

We may have been better served by also lobbying harder with our traditional NAM constituency so as to win greater support within it which would have helped in inducing the major players to pay more attention to our concerns.

Satish Chandra was former Deputy National Security Adviser.



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