The US withdraw from the Arms Transfer Treaty puts partisanship and profits over human lives

Diane Bernabei, Military, Security and Police Transfers, Thematic Group, Amnesty International USA

In June 2012, Secretary of State John Kerry signed the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the only existing international agreement that establishes common standards for the export and transfer of conventional weapons, parts and components, and ammunition. The most salient features of the treaty? It prohibits (1) transfers of weapons that lead to war crimes and attacks on civilians and (2) weapons shipments to countries under UN arms embargos. These common-sense provisions should be easy for countries — whether they are large arms exporters are not — to sign to uphold.

In late April, the Trump administration announced the United States will withdraw its signature from the ATT, undoing its support for an agreement established to protect human rights and innocent people from abuse, torture, and unlawful killings. Echoing inflammatory rhetoric long touted by the National Rifle Association, the Trump administration claims the treaty will infringe on US sovereignty and would undermine the Second Amendment and the right of US citizens to bear arms. However, the ATT does not apply to domestic transfers; in fact, it explicitly recognizes the right of states to regulate guns within their own country. The reality is that the treaty seeks to regulate the $100bn global arms trade by requiring governments to assess the risk of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law before they authorize an arms deal.

In fact, the treaty’s rules are very simple. Countries cannot export weapons to end-users who they know will use the weapons in acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Virtually all of the principles and provisions in the Arms Trade Treaty are already established in current US arms export policy — and ironically, the core provisions were incorporated into the Trump Administration’s own policy on conventional weapons transfers just last year. The treaty mandates end-user verification and risk assessments. It is also intended to prevent the diversion of weapons by irresponsible brokering as well as unregulated transshipments.

The ATT originated out of an effort led by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr. Oscar Arias, along with international civil society organizations, including Amnesty International, in the 1990s. The effort was largely a reaction to a series of armed conflicts where perpetrators’ armies were awash with weapons that reached them via unregulated markets from P-5 states. In reaction to the crises of the 1980s and 1990s — the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the Balkans conflicts, and conflicts in Africa’s Great Lakes region, West Africa, Afghanistan and in Central America amongst others — the campaign to create an international code for the trade in arms gained momentum. In 2006 the UN General Assembly officially initiated the process when it passed a resolution with 153 votes to explore the creation of an arms trade treaty. Negotiations ensued for years after and finally in 2013, the UN General Assembly adopted the final ATT text.

Globally, armed violence kills more than half a million people every year, and for every person who is killed, thousands more are injured, tortured, abused, kidnapped at gun-point or forced to flee their homes and communities. The unregulated proliferation of small arms and light weapons contributes to a variety of types of violence ranging from armed conflict, to terrorism, to repressive state behavior, to gang violence and domestic abuse. The news is full of stories showing the consequences of the lack of responsible regulation of the global arms trade, be it in Yemen, Syria, or South Sudan.

The ATT is the only international agreement that seeks to eradicate the illicit arms market that fuels these acts of violence and to regulate the global trade in arms in such a way as to prevent their use for such acts.

It is the responsibility of arms exporting nations to ensure weapons are not used to perpetrate crimes against humanity whether that be by granting licenses or imposing embargoes and arms trade suspensions. The ATT lays solid groundwork for regulations around these efforts. By withdrawing its signature, the United States sends a perverse message. Instead of leading the way to prevent unnecessary human suffering and irresponsible arms transfers, it is prioritizing political partisanship and profits over lives.