US & Canada

Q&A: Global Arms Trade Treaty

After years of negotiation, the UN General Assembly is to vote on the first treaty to regulate the global trade in conventional arms.

Progress on the treaty, which is expected to be passed by a majority, was delayed by major arms exporters like the US, which only approved the idea in 2009 after Barack Obama was elected president.

Opposition from three states under existing arms sanctions - Iran, North Korea and Syria - prevented the treaty being adopted by consensus, so it went to a vote instead.

While the treaty will be greeted by peace campaigners as a step towards conflict resolution, sceptics question its real impact.

What does the treaty aim to achieve?

The global weapons trade is worth an estimated $70bn (£46bn), feeding dozens of ongoing armed conflicts from the civil war in Syria to Mexico's drug wars.

UN treaties regulating weapons of mass destruction already exist, but none to control the conventional armaments which kill people daily.

According to a draft copy of the treaty published by the UN, it will set international standards for the trade in conventional arms and seek to prevent illegal arms-trading.

Governments will be expected to review arms export contracts to ensure the weapons do not violate existing arms embargoes, will not be used for war crimes, human rights abuses or organised crime and will not be diverted for illegal use.

Governments will also be expected to regulate arms brokers.

Which weapons are covered?

Battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large-calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and missile launchers, small arms and light weapons.

Ammunition, parts and components will also be regulated.

How will the treaty be enforced?

Signatories to the treaty must report back to a new UN secretariat about the action they are taking to control their arms exports, and their actual exports. However, their reports may "exclude commercially sensitive or national security information".

It is down to the individual governments to "take appropriate measures to enforce national laws and regulations" implementing the treaty.

Can countries just ignore the treaty?

Countries are not obliged to sign. Even when they do so, it is not a foregone conclusion that their parliaments will subsequently ratify them.

For a comparison, since the land mine ban treaty was passed by the UN in 1999, at least 160 countries have signed and ratified, according to the Arms Control Association. Among those who have not signed are the US, Russia, China, India and Pakistan.

Why did Iran, North Korea and Syria try to block the treaty?

Iran said the treaty was full of flaws and loopholes while North Korea argued that it lacked balance.

In Syria, the government complained that the treaty failed to prevent deliveries of weapons to "terrorist armed groups and to non-state actors" - an indication that it is worried about its own ability to continue fighting its civil war.

How have the top arms exporters reacted?

The US and Russia are the world's arms-exporting giants, with China, Ukraine and Germany also major exporters.

Germany is among the nearly 120 states, led by Mexico, which issued a joint statement on 18 March stressing the "necessity and the urgency of adopting a strong Arms Trade Treaty".

The US and Russia were not party to that call for action. Washington has said it will support the treaty but made clear that there would be no impact on its domestic gun ownership laws.

Russia has said there are "omissions" in the treaty and "doubtful" provisions.

When will the treaty come into force?

Countries may sign the treaty from 3 June 2013 onwards. It will take effect 90 days after it is ratified by the 50th country to sign.

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