Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Getting a Grip on Arms Transfers

Recently, and within the space of a couple of weeks, I travelled to Japan and to Canada to participate in conferences devoted to finding ways to prevent small arms and light weapons from being transferred into regions, countries and hands where they could be used to commit human rights violations, war crimes or genocide; or to topple a country or region into armed conflict. Although the deliberations took place at opposite ends of the world, the conclusions were remarkably similar - States need to take much more seriously their existing obligations under international law to transfer arms responsibly.

Every State, of course, has the right to defend itself. The UN Charter recognises this. For most States, this necessitates acquiring arms, either through production or import. The arms trade is a legitimate activity that allows States to meet their security needs. But when a State turns its weapons against its own people, or in aggression against its neighbours, the suppliers of those weapons must share the blame if such actions were part of a pattern of past abuses or were otherwise foreseeable.

But why, you might ask, is it necessary to do anything at all about this if States already have obligations under international law that require them not to transfer arms to recipients that are likely to misuse them? It is true that States have many obligations under international human rights- and humanitarian law, as well as under arms embargoes agreed by the UN Security Council, to transfer arms in a responsible manner. In an ideal world, this would be enough. But in reality, existing obligations are often flouted (see the April 17 New York Times article on arms transfers to Darfur for one example), are open to interpretation, and are so scattered throughout the aquis of international law that they are often overlooked.

Two initiatives aim to address this by collecting relevant obligations into one place and arranging them in such a way that they provide clear and comprehensive guidance to States when making decisions on arms transfers. The first, known as the Transfer Controls Initiative (TCI), focuses specifically on small arms and light weapons. The TCI aims to elaborate on States' undertakings in the UN Programme of Action on the illict trade in small arms and light weapons in order to develop a set of common guidelines that all States could refer to when deciding whether or not to authorise transfers of small arms and light weapons. This initiative has made good progress in recent years and could potentially make a valuable contribution to regulating the small arms trade in the short- to medium-term.

The second initiative is at once more ambitious and more difficult. It aims to negotiate a new legally-binding treaty to regulate the transfer of all conventional weapons, from armalites to aircraft-carriers. This so-called Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) initiative is still in its preliminary stages, although it has the support of a large majority of UN Member States. Actual negotiations are unlikely to start before 2009, but if they do begin, and are successful, an ATT has the potential, in the medium- to long-term, to provde by far the strongest framework yet for regulating arms transfers.

Properly regulating the legitimate arms trade is the best way to minimise the risk that weapons will be misused to intimidate, displace or kill civilians; or to spark regional conflicts. From Japan to Canada and many places in between, both north and south, this message is gaining traction.

Patrick Mc Carthy


Tokyo Workshop on Small Arms and Light Weapons, 12-13 March 2007. For more information, click here.

Helsinki Process Roundtable on Small Arms and Light Weapons, 25-27 March 2007. http://www.helsinkiprocess.fi

"Sudan Defying Security Council on Darfur, U.N. Says," New York Times, 17 April 2007, available here.

Mural detail from a Shinto shrine in Kyoto (photo: Patrick Mc Carthy)