Skiplink Navigation

Main Features

More transparency? Concerns raised over scope of Arms Trade Treaty

Des combattants nuers Jikany de l'Armée blanche, dans l'État du Haut-Nil, au Soudan du Sud. Les ONG veulent empêcher les ventes d’armes à ces groupes armés.


An international conference on a new treaty regulating the arms trade is being held this month in Mexico – and Switzerland is hoping that Geneva will be chosen to host the treaty’s secretariat. But not everyone is convinced that the agreement has enough teeth.

“For the first time an international instrument legally obliges signature states to carry out an evaluation of potential buyers before authorising arms exports,” said Marc Finaudexternal link, expert on disarmament at the Geneva Centre for Security Policyexternal link, of the Arms Trade Treaty external link(ATT).

“This is done by respecting a certain number of criteria defined by the treaty,” added the former member of the French diplomatic service.

These criteria have been defined according to the principals of the Geneva Conventions, the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The key objectives are to limit or stop the illegal trade of arms – to terrorist groups or organised crime networks - and to ensure exporting countries act responsibly when making sales. 

The ATT entered into force in December 2014 with 130 countries having signed up and 72 having ratified it, including Switzerland.

The First Conference of States Parties to the ATT will start on August 24, in Cancun. Among its tasks: to vote on which of three cities – Geneva, Vienna or Port of Spain – will host the secretariat.

Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter will be attending the meeting, it has been announcedexternal link.

A flourishing market

The agreement comes at a time that the international arms trade, both non-military and military, is flourishing: since 2009, the global arms tradeexternal link has booked sales of between $30 and $40 billion (CHF28.8 to 38.5 billion) a year, while military spendingexternal link has come in at $1,700 billion a year, the equivalent of 2.6% of global Gross Domestic Product.

“Among the top clients of the major arms exporters are the countries of the Middle East, an area steeped in conflict that is not short on resources,” said Finaud.

External Content

The following content is sourced from external partners. We cannot guarantee that it is suitable for the visually or hearing impaired.

But in recent years the trade has shifted towards Asia – making this now the number one arms import destination. This is due to numerous border tensions in region, Finaud added. This includes between China and its neighbours.

External Content

The following content is sourced from external partners. We cannot guarantee that it is suitable for the visually or hearing impaired.

He said that today’s arms race was between exporters: “If one country renounces the sale of a particular weapon, another will replace it. This is why forcing traders to be responsible is so important.”

For this reason, the international agreement does not seek to reduce arms sales, but to impose transparency. Advocates of the ATT say this is necessary for a trade that prefers to operate in the shadows, or even in total darkness.

Diluted treaty?

But non-government organisations such as Amnesty International (AI) are worried that the substance of the treaty will be diluted during the negotiations on its implementation in Cancun.

We have been fightingexternal link for twenty years for this treaty … and what we are seeing is that countries are in favour of compromising with those who want to limit the scope of the treaty,” says Alain Bovard of the Swiss branch of AI.

“Denmark submitted a proposition in favour of full participation for NGOs, which was supported by several African countries. But countries like France or Germany are clearly opposed.”

Head of the Swiss delegation to the Cancun conference, Erwin Bollinger, sees things differently: “Countries which have ratified the treaty absolutely want it. The recalcitrant nations are those that have not signed it.”

The United States, the world’s largest arms exporter with more than half of global sales, has signed the treaty but not ratified it.

“Washington must take the treaty into account,” said Bollinger, who is also head of export controls and sanctions at the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECOexternal link).

“The timing has not been right yet for Russia or China to sign, but the fact that other large exporters like Germany, France and Great Britain have signed up to the treaty will give them a voice and will probably influence countries like Russia to conform – at least in part – to the basic obligations of the treaty.”

Where does Switzerland, which ratified the treaty in January 2015, stand?

“We are for an open approach, including concerning civil society and other observers, like regional and international organisations. Other countries prefer that certain delicate discussions are not made public… But Switzerland is committed to the most open solution possible,” said Bollinger.

Uncertain impact

Recent times have seen atrocities committed by groups that have been directly or indirectly armed by major manufacturers of military equipment, whether in the Middle East or Africa.

Will the ATT change the situation? Finaud is hopeful and says civil society will have a key vigilance role in ensuring that the ATT has teeth.

“The treaty restricts exports to zones where arms are likely to be used for war crimes. The exporting countries and the intermediaries are obliged to investigate,” he said. 

But Bovard is less certain: “The problem is knowing which information states will be obliged to divulge and what will be provided on a voluntary basis. There are many countries that want to provide only the minimum information. So the transparency that the treaty is trying to create is being brought into question.”

Geneva for the Secretariat

Taking place August 24 -27, the Cancun conference will decide which city will become home to the secretariat of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The three candidates are Geneva, Vienna and Port of Spain (Trinidad and Tobago).

According to Erwin Bollinger, head of the Swiss delegation to the conference, Port of Spain has the most support but it comes essentially from Latin American countries, whereas Geneva has support from several regions, notably Africa.

Also acting in Geneva’s favour is the fact that it is also home to the most diplomatic missions, NGOs, think tanks and United Nations institutions linked to the issue of disarmament. This would allow for creating synergies to reduce the administrative costs of the secretariat.

Geneva is also home to the International Committee of the Red Cross and other organisations linked to the presence of the World Trade Organization, as well as the headquarters of the Conference on Disarmament.

The ATT reaches into many areas and goes well beyond disarmament in the strict sense of the term. It considers arms trading legal but aims to combat the illegal dimension. The sprawling nature of the ATT plays into Geneva’s hand in its bid to host its secretariat.

Vienna, the other home of the United Nations, also has many attributes, according to observers. In particular, the presence in the Austrian capital of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is founded on a treaty similar in spirit to the ATT.

end of infobox

Translated from French by Sophie Douez,

Neuer Inhalt

Horizontal Line

SWI on Instagram

SWI on Instagram

SWI on Instagram

subscription form

Form for signing up for free newsletter.

Sign up for our free newsletters and get the top stories delivered to your inbox.

Click here to see more newsletters