Next Steps in Realizing the Goals of the Arms Trade Treaty

Vann Van Diepen
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation
International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)
Washington, DC
October 3, 2013

Thank you for this kind introduction, Steven. And thank you everyone for this opportunity to discuss the Arms Trade Treaty today.

As I am sure you know, Secretary Kerry signed the ATT a week ago at the United Nations. In his remarks, he explained what the treaty is about and why this historic treaty is in the United States interest. It is worth repeating his words. He said this treaty is about keeping weapons out of the hands of terrorists and rogue actors. It is about reducing the risk of illicit international transfers of conventional arms that will be used to carry out the world’s worst crimes. It is about keeping Americans safe and keeping America strong. It is about promoting international peace and global security, and about advancing important humanitarian goals.

Secretary Kerry also clearly spelled out what this treaty is not. It is not about taking away domestic freedoms. As the President has said, he strongly believes that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to bear arms. The treaty is fully consistent with the rights of U.S. citizens, including those conferred by the Second Amendment. The ATT recognizes the freedom of individuals and states to obtain, possess, and use arms for legitimate purposes. This treaty reaffirms the sovereign right of each country to decide for itself, consistent with its own constitution and legal requirements, how to deal with conventional arms exclusively within its borders.

I would add one other thing that this treaty is not. It is not about limiting a country’s sovereign right to conduct responsible arms transfers. Indeed, the ATT is a trade regulation treaty focused exclusively on the international trade in conventional arms. It aims to create a global framework for countries’ responsible national regulation of the international transfer of conventional arms, which the treaty recognizes as a legitimate activity that supports countries’ national security and commercial interests.

By signing the treaty, the United States joined the more than one hundred countries who have also signed the treaty. This simple act, however, only came after the many years of hard work by many countries and nongovernmental organizations it took to get the strong Arms Trade Treaty we have today.

Moving forward, many more countries and NGOs will have to continue working hard – in fact, even harder – to ensure that States ratifying the treaty effectively implement their ATT obligations. And that is the crux of what I want to discuss this morning: as we move beyond the last year’s focus on negotiating conferences and signing ceremonies, what steps should countries now be taking to help make the goals of this treaty a reality?

To begin this discussion, I would like to posit that in order to achieve the noble ideals of the ATT—promoting global peace and international security and advancing humanitarian objectives—it is not enough to sign, or even ratify, the treaty. ATT States Parties will need to ensure that the rule of law and good governance are enhanced and citizens can live in a stable and secure environment, where governments have adequate controls over weapon transfers and stockpiles.

In this context there are a number of steps that governments can take to help achieve the ideals of the ATT. I would like to stress that the United States feels that it is in a fortunate position in this effort, because nothing in the treaty will require us to change its current export and import policies and procedures. Many of the countries represented in this room similarly start from a very good foundation. Indeed, many of these actions I wish to focus on today go beyond the specific obligations of the treaty, such as its requirement to establish a national trade control system. I turn our attention today to these additional actions as a way of reminding ourselves that the treaty is not a solution by itself, but is instead a tool that we can use to address the larger challenges to which the treaty is responding.

To start with an action that would be required by the treaty itself, countries must establish and implement not just effective export regimes but also effective import regimes so that there are adequate controls in place by a government importing conventional arms to prevent their unlawful diversion. I start with this point because discussion of the ATT usually focuses only on export controls. Export regimes are of course important, but establishing an effective import regime is particularly crucial in those states where uncontrolled violence is endemic. These import regimes also need to be as transparent as possible in order to help prevent diversion and build confidence that ATT implementation is effective.

Countries – including those that already have import regimes on the books – must also continuously improve and implement effective border control and customs services – both in law and in practice. Effective border control and customs services go hand-in-hand with an effective ATT: Having national laws in place aimed at preventing illicit imports does nothing if there is no way to implement and enforce the restrictions. Here, I am happy to say that the United States has extensive experience in aiding countries in all aspects of building effective border control and customs services.

Countries must also establish an effective legal framework for the prosecution of illegal arms traffickers. Putting in place the laws, practices, and the organizations needed to ensure that traffickers and entities that support their illicit arms trade are actively investigated and brought to justice. This will not be easy, especially for governments lacking a strong history of rule of law. It will require stronger legal and law enforcement capabilities, as well as broad international cooperation.

Furthermore, it is essential that countries institute and maintain effective controls over state stockpiles of excess arms. Today, such arms are all too often poorly secured. As you know, properly securing caches of excess arms is not an obligation of the ATT, which only deals with international transfers of arms. Improvement is necessary to realizing the broader goals that the ATT seeks to address. Again, I am proud to say that it is also an area where the United States already offers substantial assistance to countries seeking it – though we will continue to look for ways to improve and expand our assistance.

Finally, as we know from other international nonproliferation regimes, even with a treaty in place and operating well we will have to deal with a few governments that actively support the kinds of illicit trafficking that cause humanitarian crises or destabilize neighboring states. The recipients of these trafficked arms may be terrorists or, even oppressive governments. Governments that openly or covertly operate or encourage such transgressions must be stopped, and their neighbors and the international community as a whole must employ whatever political or economic tools we have to ensure that they are.

This may seem like a daunting and difficult “to-do” list to raise even as we rightly look back with pride on all we have accomplished in the past year. But these are exactly the types of steps that are needed to address the humanitarian crimes and crises fueled by the illicit international trade in arms. These steps need to be achieved not just by the few arms exporting states, which by and large already have legal mechanisms in place to regulate the export and import of conventional arms. They will not be achieved simply by adding more names to the treaty, another regulation, or even another element of consideration for approval of exports. These steps need to be achieved in particular by the actions of those governments that are directly affected by the most egregious offenses against humanitarian principles.

But, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that these governments can take these steps on their own. The international community must work together to help them do so. The United States will continue to build on our already substantial record of cooperation and assistance in these efforts, in order to improve nonproliferation and counterproliferation actions for all types of destabilizing weapons.

The adoption of the ATT this past April, and its opening for signature in June, brought new focus on an aspect of non-proliferation that frequently has been overshadowed by weapons of mass destruction: the often illicit and destabilizing proliferation of conventional weapons. As of this week, 113 countries have signed the ATT and 7 have ratified it. The attention that the ATT brings to the combined problems stemming from illicit arms transfers offers us an opportunity to tackle some of these enduring and difficult tasks with renewed vigor. And the ATT offers a launching point from which to do so.

Thank you. I am pleased to respond to your questions.