The UN Arms Trade Treaty Negotiations: A battle between codifying frail and robust legal principles

The trade/transfer in conventional weapons, including, but not limited to, small arms and light weapons, and major armaments such as tanks and fighter airplanes, has always been controversial for various reasons. First, these are the main tools of armed conflict, gross violations of human rights and humanitarian law, and repression. Recent events in the Arab Spring and in Africa evidence that the problem is not limited to small arms and light weapons but also to major conventional weapons such as combat helicopters and heavy artillery. Secondly, arms supplies from developed to developing countries may well be contrary to the sustainable development agenda of importing countries and populations, the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and their starving and most deprived populations in particular. Thirdly, weapon transactions are prime spots of corruption, embezzlement of public funds, and abuse of political power.

This is not to say that conventional weapons never serve a good purpose; they are vital for countries’ self-defence, policing, and for participating in United Nations and regional peace keeping operations, as widely and rightly recognised by the international community. They are also economically and technologically important, mainly for arms supplier countries, as they generate trillions of US dollars in sales.

However, distinguishing the legal and legitimate trade in and use of conventional weapons on the one hand, from their illegal trade, use and abuse on the other, is quite a complex matter. The fact that we do not have a global arms trade treaty, setting out global standards and an institutionalised framework for their implementation, adds to this problem. While regional legal instruments such as the ECOWAS Convention on the Import/Export of Small Arms 2006, and the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports 1998, have included, to varying degrees, the commitment to abide by the most fundamental principles of international law such as human rights, humanitarian law protection, and the maintenance of peace and security, major differences remain among the top arms producing countries regarding the adoption of a robust and appropriate global treaty on arms trading. Similarly, the UN Firearms Protocol 2001 which supplements the UN Conventions against Transnational Organised Crime 2000, is mainly concerned with trafficking in firearms and excludes the ‘legal’ and ‘legitimate’ trade in armaments from its ambit, although it contributes to the regulation of the arms trade by requiring states parties to implement stringent national measures for the manufacturing, importing and exporting of armaments.

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