Unregulated trade in conventional arms especially small arms and light weapons (SALWs) remain a major cause of devastating armed conflict, violence, terrorism, crime and its resultant displacement of persons. While conventional arms have, in many instances, been associated with violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, they are also used to undermine peace, reconciliation, safety, security and they remain key impediments to stability.

The United Nations since its establishment has been concerned about the issue of conventional arms trade and transfer. Unfortunately, no concrete action had been taken in this regard. However, in 2006, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 61/89 which requested the UN Secretary-General to seek the views of Member States on the feasibility, scope and draft parameters for a comprehensive, legally binding instrument establishing common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms, and to submit a report on the subject to the General Assembly at its sixty-second session.

What is an Arms Trade Treaty?

All important areas of world trade are covered by internationally agreed rules, regulation and standards that bind countries to an agreed conduct. Ironically, this is not the case with regard to international transfer of conventional weapons. The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is a potential multilateral treaty that would regulate international trade in and transfer of conventional weapons. The UN General Assembly resolution 61/89 marked the beginning of the current Arms Trade Treaty process with 153 votes which was a clear indication of the concern of States about trade which had gone out of hand as well as their desire to seriously address the issue. Even states that had initially adopted a “wait–and–see” attitude have become engaged in the process.

The ATT is therefore a unique arms control initiative as it recognizes that all countries should be more responsible in arms transfers decision-making, as each year, at least a third of a million people are killed directly with conventional weapons and many more.

Consequently, transfers of conventional weapons for undesirable purposes or with the risk of its diversion to the illicit market could not rely solely on traditional national or regional export controls systems. The ATT will therefore set international standards and regulations based on international law to guarantee effective control of global arms trade.

Progress so far on the ATT

The United Nations Conference on an Arms Trade Treaty that was held in July 2012 at the United Nations in New York. This was predicated on the initiation negotiation process that commenced in 2006. Despite the efforts put forth by Governments during the four-week intensive negotiations, the conference in the end could not reach an agreement. An outcome document which the experts call the “July 26 Text” or the” Draft ATT Text” was reached. The United States delegation announced that they needed more time to study the document leading to a break-down in the treaty negotiations. The General Assembly therefore decided to convene another conference in March 2013 to conclude the work that begun in July 2012.

Issues of Concern for Africa

Delegations from African States have been instrumental in pushing the agenda for the inclusion of ammunition and scientific developments in the ATT and there appear to be some consensus on this. This underscores the key concerns in Africa and West Africa, in particular, that the issue of ammunitions is not one of a legal tool but rather the very survival of the region. In 2003 during the RUF siege on Freetown in Sierra Leone, it was reported that, at a point the RUF halted the attacks on non-combatants when they noticed they were running out of ammunitions. However, when the RUF allegedly got supplies from the Balkans, they started killing children and women indiscriminately. As President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia observed, “it is bullets and ammunition which actually kill people” hence the need to include them in the ATT.

Again, the history of armed conflict in West Africa underscores the need to regulate ammunition as contained in the ECOWAS Convention on SALW. African countries share a common position that the ATT should include in its Scope all conventional weapons and their parts and components, as well as technology for the manufacture or modification of conventional arms; it should also include ammunition and munitions such as weaponised explosives. It is however obvious that manufacturing countries do not want to report as per the provisions under Article 10 assumptions to be subjected to proper risk assessment. The manufacturing countries are also uncomfortable with reporting, record-keeping and transparency requirements citing economic and industrial costs. This however defeats the humanitarian concerns that gave birth to the ATT initiative.

For State Parties to be able to agree on an Arms Trade Treaty there will be the need for a consensus on some of the burning issues that are facing resistance from some “big players” in the arms arena. Whereas ECOWAS, AU, and the EU are all pushing for the recognition and active participation of Regional Blocs in the implementation of the ATT, China is resolutely against this position especially the role of the European Union and this stand-off if not immediately resolved has the potential of negatively affecting the long-term implementation of an ATT if it is finalized.

Another nagging issue that needs to be navigated well is the inclusion of a clause that will prohibit the transfer of conventional weapons to unauthorized None-State Actors; again this clause is being stiffly opposed by some arms exporting States and “big powers”. This is due to the fact that some of these States have private security organizations providing security services to their national installations and interest outside their jurisdiction and they are reluctant in reporting these transfers of conventional weapons to these organizations outside their own jurisdiction. But what will be the essence of an ATT if in the end arms will still get in to the hands of militant non-State Actors such as the M23 in DR Congo, the Touaregs in Northern Mali, RUF of Sierra Leone among others who will not only destabilize legitimately elected governments but use the power of the gun and bullet to cause human right violations, brutally maim, rape and kill innocent women and children and ultimately undermine the development of their own States?

The non flexibility of the “big powers” in these matters raised above is deeply worrying especially to the African States who have suffered and are yet to recover from gross and debilitating effects of armed violence unleashed by terror and militant groups have access particularly to conventional weapons particularly Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) and their ammunitions. Even though countries like the United Kingdom, India, Syria and the European Union in general seem to fancy the Africa position and have softened their stance on the non-inclusion of ammunition, parts and components as well as the transfer arms to none-state actors, there still remain a challenge, which will require the flexibility of the U.S.A, China and their allies. The writer is not oblivious to the fact that this is a negotiation and therefore Africa and her partners must also be ready to let go some of the issues they hold unto in order to secure the cooperation and support of the State Parties who are opposed to the African position.

Indeed, Africa must be commended for coming into the ATT negotiation with a set of issues that she has resolutely pushed and succeeded in getting them into the draft agreement


In conclusion, it is important to indicate that a comprehensive Scope both in terms of items and activities will be crucial to the effectiveness of the proposed Arms Trade Treaty. The draft ATT in July, 2012 has a number of crucial shortcomings; these issues will need to be resolved at the ATT Conference in March, 2013 if the world is to agree on a Treaty that is fit for purpose.

The world can and must agree on an Arms Trade Treaty, but the President of the Final United Nations negotiations on the ATT has an arduous task of managing and using his diplomatic skills to navigate the competing interests of the respective parties to reach a consensus on the text of the ATT acceptable to all parties which will make a real impact on the ground by addressing the developmental challenges imposed on poorer states as a result of unregulated arms transfers. The conference has to avoid the ATT going to the General Assembly as per paragraph 7 of the resolution 67/234 of the sixty-seventh session, that require a report of the outcome of the ATT conference to be made to the General Assembly for a possible vote if there is no consensus.

The various diplomats, negotiators and delegates cannot fail our world this time round, after all bananas which do not kill are regulated by a treaty, why not weapons and ammunitions?