The UN Arms Treaty – a milestone in peacekeeping or flawed and discriminatory?

The 2013 UN Arms Treaty has been heralded as a milestone document that has the potential to curb the weapons trade, but there is a need to take a more critical look at this document and its implications for global conflict.

Suggested Reading

Conflict Background


By Fabio Andres Diaz

On April 2nd this year the UN adopted the Arms Trade Treaty – a milestone document in curbing the weapons trade. Human rights groups are hoping that this will reduce the chances of genocides, human rights violations and crimes against humanity. And though the intentions of the people and organisations pushing for this treaty are commendable, it is important we cast a critical eye over this treaty and its interpretations in the media.

The treaty aims to restrict the transfer of all kinds of weaponry; from tanks and submarines, to small arms and light weapons. However, if we want to impede human rights abuses the focus should be devoted to small arms and weapons as these are most commonly used in instances of human rights violations. The cases of Rwanda and the Balkans have shown us that acts of genocide and extreme violence do not necessarily require the use of high-tech weaponry. The industrialized use of heavy weaponry is a skill perfected by a select few countries. Syria seems to be on the path to perfecting this with its ongoing civil war.

Moreover, if the treaty aims to reduce violence against civilians through blocking the transfer of technology and weaponry to countries deemed in danger of harming civilians, will this treaty also block the export of weaponry to ‘allied’ countries such as Israel, who have a history of using hi-tech weaponry that has affected civilians both directly and indirectly? If the answer to this question is no, is this not just a ‘convenient’ treaty that will be used to highlight and restrict the human rights abuses of one group of actors and not all of them?

The illegal arms market
Another point to have in mind is role of the markets, and illegal markets in particular. In most cases weapons used for human rights abuses have been transferred through illegal channels. In several cases it has been common to find weapons used in previous conflicts in new countries. If the UN intends to improve this the treaty should emphasise the prosecution of traffickers, regardless of who the recipient or the sender may be. There should be a concerted effort to avoid value judgments on who receives the weaponry- regardless of whether it be a ‘freedom fighter’, a pariah regime or a ‘terrorist’. It is important to remember that in the 1980s the Taliban were considered freedom fighters and were heavily armed by the United States and China, among others, with the consequences of this being felt now. Similarly the weapons transfers that are currently happening with the Syrian rebels could potentially backfire in the long term. If the treaty aims to become a moral standard for the world it should be applied uniformly to everyone.In addition, if the idea is to suppress the illegal markets with these measures, it is important to consider that the use of repressive mechanisms could simply create further economic incentives for the traffickers. This will happen in a similar way as the ‘drug war’ has created incentives for drug smugglers that has, after 30 years of battling, failed to drown the market.

Misdirected media attention

A lot of media attention has surrounded Iran, North Korea and Syria’s opposition to the treaty. Clearly if there is an arms embargo, they will be three countries most significantly affected. However, the media’s focus on these three nations overlooks the subtle but significant actions of other nations – countries that have abstained from voting who could be equally important for this treaty.

Looking at the statistics, Syria nor Iran nor North Korea feature in the group of nations that constitute the top 80% of arms exporters in the world – this point is salient as the UN treaty is more concerned with arms exports than imports. In fact Iran ranks at number 40 in arms exports in the years from 1990 to 2012, accounting for 0.05% of weapons exports in the world. Syria are number 42 and North Korea are number 65.

Therefore the actions of the major weapons sellers who abstained from voting points to the fact that the treaty may not even be implementable. China and Russia, two of the biggest weapons dealers in the world, refrained from signing the treaty. In addition, countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Qatar abstained. This highlights the difficulty that the UN may have when attempting to ratify the treaty, as it requires 50 nations to do so for it to come into effect.

Exporters vs importers

Interestingly very little attention has been devoted to the major arms exporting nations who have abstained from this, a treaty, aimed at regulating arms exports. Rather, attention has been focused upon potential arms importing nations opposed to the treaty. This focus on the importers has occurred in spite of the fact that North Korea, Syria and Iran have all to some extent developed their own weapons industries. With this in mind the argument built surrounding these nations seems to be a straw man.

The act of nations abstaining – and our ignorance to their reasons for doing so – point to the vagueness of this document. Therefore, any argument must be assessed independently of who brings it to the fore. If we do not do that then we are making decisions based on ideology, not analysis. Opponents of the treaty argue that the agreement favours major arms suppliers over importers that need weapons for self-defence – this is an argument that makes sense. If this argument looks less valid because it is presented by Syria, Iran or North Korea, nations that see self-defence as a national imperative, this raises questions on our biases and beliefs of what is justifiable and fair.

What impact the treaty will actually have remains to be seen. It will take only effect after 50 countries ratify it, and the future of it will depend on that. If major suppliers of weapons do not sign it, we cannot expect this treaty to be landmark document some may have hoped it to be.

Fabio Andres Diaz is a researcher at the Center for Conflict analysis and Management (CICAM) at Radboud University Nijmegen and is also a member of the REDH Network of Scientists and Researchers on Colombia in the Netherlands.

This article was originally published by Insight on Conflict and is available by clicking here.

What are the principles of conflict transformation?



3 Responses

  1. Jeff

    I think the treaty is deeply flawed. Goals and ideals cannot be the measure of a treaty or law. The wording it uses, how it is enforced and the consequenses must be.

    While a stated goal of the treaty is reducing violence against civilians, the treaty restricts the tool most likely to do so. Over the 20th century and thus far into the 21st, goverments and govermental groups operating within thier own countries have been responsible for far more civilian deaths than revolutionaries or outside actors. Even in those cases where a revolution has turned into genocide, it has not been until after the revolutionary group has assumed power that genocides began.

    Can it really be assumed that a government planning on committing genocide within its own borders will be discouraged by arms restrictions that don’t go into place until they start the killings? They will have ammassed any weapons they want / need long before then. As for revolutionary groups, while the restrictions in arms trade might suppress some, most of them are forced to get arms through illicit channels anyway. Once they get control, no outside restriction on arms will prevent them from committing atrocities.

    Violence against civilians, including murder and wholesale genocide, do not require modern arms or ammunition. Poison, food shortages, and simple weapons such as axes and clubs can and have been used to kill off whole populations. When the civilian population has no means to defend themselves they are at the mercy of those who wish them harm.

    That is the crux of it. The civilian population in most areas of the world has no effective means of defending themselves against genocide. In most developed nations, we dismiss the idea because we are confident that the checks and balances with our government systems, and those of our nieghbors, will prevent that from happening. Many that do look at it dismiss the idea of a populance defending themselves against a government entity citing the vastly superior weapons systems the goverment would control.

    But as you state, many cases of genocide do not involve high tech weapons. When a group of civilians has no arms they are at the mercy of a handful of criminals (I won’t elevate them by calling them “soldiers”) with simple small arms. the contrary is true also – how many villages would have been spared genocide in Rwanda if those dong the killing had to face gunfire from even one out of every 10 of their victims?

    Yet the treaty does not recognise individual self defense as a legitimate reason for posessing arms.

    Let me say that again, as it bears repeating: The treaty does not recognise individual self defense.

    Since it recognises a governments or nations right to self defense, what can that say about the real purpose of the treaty? Just who is it really protecting?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons