Overwhelming Majority of States in General Assembly Say ‘Yes’ to Arms Trade Treaty to Stave off Irresponsible Transfers that Perpetuate Conflict, Human Suffering



Sixty-seventh General Assembly
71st & 72nd Meetings (AM & PM)

Adopted by Vote of 154 in Favour to 3 Against, ‘Robust and Actionable’ Text Requires Arms Exporters to Assess Possible Misuse

To a burst of sustained applause, the General Assembly today voted overwhelmingly in favour of a “historic”, first-ever treaty to regulate the astonishing number of conventional weapons traded each year, making it more difficult for them to be diverted into the hands of those intent on sowing the seeds of war and conflict.

By a vote of 154 in favour to 3 against (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Iran, Syria), with 23 abstentions, the Assembly passed the 28-article Arms Trade Treaty, aiming to establish the highest possible common international standards for the annual $70 billion business. The adoption follows the failure last week of the Final United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty to reach consensus on the text at the conclusion of its two-week session.

“The final text is, in my view, robust and actionable,” said General Assembly President Vuc Jeremić ( Serbia). It also was “groundbreaking”, in that arms-exporting countries would be legally bound to report arms sales and transfers. They would be obliged to assess whether the weapons they sold could be used to facilitate human rights abuses and humanitarian law violations.

At the same time, the Treaty protected the rights of its signatories to regulate the buying and selling of conventional armaments, he said, as well as the primacy of national legislation in defining the conditions under which citizens could own and operate arms. It drew a link between the presence of weapons across the developing world and the challenges of safeguarding sustainable development and human rights. He thanked the President of the Final United Nations Conference “for getting us so close to the finish line”.

For his part, Final Conference President Peter Woolcott of Australia said the fact that consensus had not been achieved should not diminish the hard work — both at the drafting Conference and since July 2012 — to bridge differences. The final text was a compromise. It represented the broadest possible input and would make a difference to the broadest range of stakeholders, notably by setting up a forum — the conference of States parties — for transparency and accountability.

The Treaty applies its constraints to the seven major categories of conventional weapons included in the 1991 United Nations Register of Conventional Arms: battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships and missiles and missile launchers — with the addition of small arms and light weapons.

Ammunition/munitions appears in a separate article, 3, outside the so-called “scope” of the Treaty, placing the responsibility on States parties to establish and maintain a national control system to regulate the export of ammunition/munitions fired, launched or delivered by the conventional arms covered in the Treaty’s scope. Article 4 — on the parts and components capable of assembling those weapons — is treated in the same manner.

Regarding prohibitions — article 6 — States parties agreed not to authorize any transfer of conventional weapons — or their ammunition/munitions, parts or components — if the transfer would violate their chapter VII obligations or those under international agreements, or if they had knowledge that arms would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, attacks against civilians or other war crimes.

If the export was not prohibited under article 6, each exporting State party, under article 7, agreed that, prior to authorization of exports, they would assess the potential that conventional arms or related items would undermine peace and security or be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian or human rights law, or acts constituting terrorism or transnational organized crimes.

Many delegations hailed the Treaty’s adoption as a historic event, which would “raise the bar” for regulating conventional arms trade without hampering legitimate commerce. No nation had received everything it had sought. The Treaty was strong, balanced and implementable, many said, and provided a clear standard on which to prohibit a conventional weapons transfer. Its adoption reaffirmed their faith in the United Nations’ ability to establish legally binding rules.

“This treaty sets a floor, not a ceiling” for the responsible international trade in conventional arms, said the United States’ representative. Taken together, the Treaty’s articles provided a “robust and complementary” framework that would ensure responsible behaviour by States parties.

Mexico’s delegate, speaking on behalf of 96 States, welcomed the adoption of the text after years of hard work. “This is just the beginning,” he said, calling for the Treaty’s rapid entry into force — ratification by 50 States was required — and its speedy implementation.

South Africa’s delegate added that the Treaty “filled a glaring gap” in the global conventional arms control system by setting high norms and criteria to which States would adhere when considering arms transfers. It required States parties to establish national transfer control legislation, as well as official administrative guidelines, national inspectorates and practical enforcement measures — including punitive measures — for transgressions.

At the same time, the three dissenting countries derided the Treaty for its blatant political hypocrisy. Iran’s delegate said he had voted “no” mainly because the Treaty failed to ban the transfer of conventional arms to foreign occupiers. The representative of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea took issue with the idea of exporters judging the human rights record of importing countries. Syria’s delegate said the text did not prohibit arms supply to unauthorized, non-State terrorist elements.

Some said that omission deeply weakened the document and undermined its effectiveness. Nicaragua’s delegate called it “dangerous”, noting that in the 1980s, his country had been a victim of the arming of non-State actors, which had cost tens of thousands of lives. Several speakers agreed that more flexibility, time and political will would have made it possible to address such deficiencies and achieve a universal treaty.

Several delegations that had abstained in the voting, including Cuba, Ecuador and Indonesia, complained that the Treaty favoured exporting over importing States. Bolivia’s delegate, who also had abstained, said the “weapons and death industries” would rest easy knowing that the Treaty favoured their economic interests. Priority had been given to profit over human suffering.

Pakistan’s delegate, who, despite his vote in favour of the Treaty, criticized its omission of important definitions, which not only departed from established practice, but could be used by exporters to circumvent its provisions, he said. Also, the text did not provide a clear accountability mechanism for exporters that might “flout” their new responsibilities.

The Treaty will open for signature on 3 June and enter into force 90 days after being ratified by the fiftieth signatory.

The representative of Costa Rica introduced the resolution entitled, “The Arms Trade Treaty” (document A/67/L.58).

Also speaking in explanation of vote before the vote were the representatives of Venezuela, Bolivia, Russian Federation, Ecuador and Sudan.

Additional speaker in explanation of vote after the vote were the representatives of Brazil, India, Egypt, Belarus, China, Singapore, Malaysia, United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Eritrea.

General statements after adoption were also made by the representatives of: Costa Rica (also on behalf of Argentina, Australia, Finland, Japan, Kenya and the United Kingdom), Trinidad and Tobago (on behalf of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM)), Colombia (also on behalf of the Bahamas, Belize, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago and Uruguay), Lebanon (on behalf of the Arab Group), Côte d’Ivoire (on behalf of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)), Japan, Switzerland,New Zealand, United Kingdom, Australia, Norway, Germany, France, Peru, Guatemala, Turkey, Chile, Italy, Papua New Guinea, Sweden, Liechtenstein, Republic of Korea, Ireland and Angola.