Arms Trade

Weapons seized from suspected members of the Islamic insurgent group Al Shabaab in Mogadishu, Somalia

Photo credit: UN Photo/Stuart Price

For several decades, the trade in weapons has been among the most lucrative businesses in the world with predictable increases year after year. The ready availability of weapons and ammunition leads to human suffering, political repression, crime and terror among civilian populations. Irresponsible arms transfers can destabilize an entire region, enable violations of arms embargoes and contribute to human rights abuses. Investment is discouraged, and development disrupted in countries experiencing conflict and high levels of violence. Countries affected by conflict or pervasive crime have the most difficulty attaining internationally agreed development goals.

Setting global norms: Adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty

Virtually all areas of world trade, from banana to petroleum, timber to minerals, are covered by regulations that bind countries into agreed conduct. Before the adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in April 2013 by the General Assembly of the United Nations, there was no global set of rules governing the trade in conventional weapons. The ATT sets robust international standards to help guide governments in deciding whether or not to authorize arms transfers. It provides for cooperation and assistance to help countries develop adequate regulatory systems and safe weapons stockpiles. The adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty marked a turning point in the international community’s efforts to regulate the global trade in conventional arms and to promote peace and security.

The Treaty contributes to:

  • Reducing armed conflict and violence, which impact millions of civilians every year;
  • Helping create a more conducive environment for the UN to carry out its mandates in peacekeeping, peacemaking and post-conflict peacebuilding and in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and of the New Agenda for Peace;
  • Fostering a safer environment for humanitarian actors operating in volatile areas across the globe such as those delivering food aid, protecting refugees, working on gender equality and empowering women.

Essential elements of the ATT

Scope: All important weapons systems: battle tanks, armed personnel carriers, artillery, fighter jets, attack helicopters, warships, missiles, and small arms and light weapons.

Ammunition as well as parts and components are covered.

Prohibitions on transfers: Any transfer that could violate Security Council arms embargoes or be used to commit acts of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes.

Criteria for assessment of exports: States will deny an export if there is an “overriding risk” that weapons may be used to negatively impact peace and security, undermine international humanitarian/human rights law, facilitate terrorism, organized crime, and gender-based violence.

Commitment to regulate: Countries commit to develop an export and import control system. Furthermore, they are also encouraged to regulate transit of weapons through their territories and arms brokers.

Commitment to report: Transparency is paramount. States commit to report on their present regulatory system, and their actual imports and exports of weapons.

International cooperation/assistance: The ATT includes provisions on institutional capacity-building and establishes a voluntary trust fund to help States implement the treaty.

Prevention of diversion: A Diversion Information Exchange Forum (DIEF) was established by the Sixth Conference of the States Parties in 2020. Thanks to the DIEF, States Parties and signatory States can have informal voluntary exchanges concerning concrete cases of detected or suspected diversion. Furthermore, they can share concrete, operational diversion-related information, which can help States to improve their national legislations and procedures.

The role of the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs

➢ Coordinate the UN system on all issues related to the arms trade;

➢ Build synergies with related topics such as the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons and weapons stockpile management;

➢ Provide advice and assisting in implementation and capacity-building – especially through UNODA regional centres in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean;

➢ Liaise with the Arms Trade Treaty Secretariat to ensure complementarity of efforts, including in activities relevant to funding.

Visit Arms Trade Treaty Secretariat for more information