On April 2, 2013, UN member states passed the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). By the end of 2013, the US and more than 100 other states had signed this global treaty; of these signers, nine states had also ratified the instrument.
When Oxfam, along with Amnesty International and the International Action Network on Small Arms, co-founded a global campaign for an arms trade treaty in 2003, only three countries—Costa Rica, Cambodia, and Mali—supported the idea.
UN adoption of the ATT is a historic win; efforts to control the global arms trade date back almost 100 years.
In 1919, in the aftermath of widespread slaughter in World War I, the member states of the nascent League of Nations attempted to develop an agreement that would restrict the flow of arms that had led to widespread destruction in the First World War. In 1925, the League of Nations produced a draft Convention on the Arms Trade; however, the effort failed, and this convention was not adopted.
In the wake of several deadly conflicts in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans in the 1980s and 1990s, several Nobel Peace laureates and a core group of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) began work to develop a legally binding International Code of Conduct for international arms transfers. In 2001, the Nobel Peace laureates circulated the Draft Framework Convention on International Arms Transfers. Campaigners supporting the convention conceived of a global campaign to build political will for this treaty and launched it in 2003.
In the historic UN General Assembly vote, the treaty was adopted with 154 voting for, 23 abstentions, and three states—Iran, North Korea, and Syria—voting against.
Oxfam and the ATT
In the 2003 campaign launch report, Oxfam and Amnesty described how the unregulated proliferation of arms fuels poverty and suffering:
Every day, millions of men, women, and children are living in fear of armed violence. Every minute, one of them is killed. … The uncontrolled proliferation and misuse of arms by government forces and armed groups takes a massive human toll in lost lives, lost livelihoods, and lost opportunities to escape poverty. An average of US$22bn a year is spent on arms by countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America—a sum that would otherwise enable those same countries to be on track to meet the Millennium Development Goals of achieving universal primary education (estimated at $10bn a year) as well as targets for reducing infant and maternal mortality (estimated at $12bn a year).
Oxfam’s work on the Arms Trade Treaty has been central to its mission to build a future free from the injustice of poverty and to its humanitarian mandate.
As noted in the Oxfam briefing paper, Saving Lives with Common Sense, the ATT is an agreement that will have a positive impact on civilians around the world affected by conflict and instability, on US security, and on poverty. The treaty requires arms-exporting countries to not transfer arms when there is an “overriding risk” that the weapons will support crimes against humanity, war crimes, or genocide.
Advocacy with the US government
During the decade of coalition campaigning, the US government moved significantly in its position on the Arms Trade Treaty. In the final weeks leading up to the April 2, 2013, vote, the US actively supported securing the treaty and voted yes in the UN General Assembly vote. Secretary of State John Kerry signed the Arms Trade Treaty for the US on Sept. 25, 2013.
In 2009, the US government—newly led by the Obama Administration—stated its support for the treaty and actively engaged in the process. However, at the start of 2012, the US government strongly opposed inclusion of ammunition in the treaty text and had not given its support on the transfer language, both of which Oxfam deemed central to an effective treaty.
In July 2012, UN member states met to try to agree on a treaty in the first UN Diplomatic Conference on the ATT. However, saying more time was needed to develop the treaty text, the US government blocked consensus at the end of the first Diplomatic Conference. UN member states met again in March 2013. At the second conference, the US government played a key role in facilitating agreement on the treaty and, after consensus was blocked by Iran, North Korea, and Syria, in achieving a final vote on the ATT.
Oxfam has played a key role in securing US government support for and vote on the Arms Trade Treaty. We regularly produced data, research, and analysis to inform US government decision-making. We actively campaigned to realize US government support for a strong treaty, notably inclusion of ammunition in the treaty and of treaty language that bans arms transfers for the purpose of or knowledge of their use for genocide, serious war crimes, or crimes against humanity.
We also worked with allies in the US to raise and channel public support for the Arms Trade Treaty via briefings and joint advocacy with the US administration and Congress. We raised the voices of Nobel Peace laureates, faith leaders, retired military leaders, NGOs, and celebrities who gave their support to the Arms Trade Treaty via letters or other actions.
Oxfam ambassador and actor Djimon Hounsou traveled to South Sudan to engage on issues related to the treaty and then meet with government officials in Washington and at the UN to convey his strong support for the treaty. We engaged in online campaigning—thousands of online advocates emailed the White House and State Department with their support. We garnered media coverage on Oxfam’s positions on the ATT in US national and regional media outlets and realized advertising campaigns to bring additional public pressure to bear.
Additionally, we sought to counter lies and misinformation about the ATT promoted by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its allies with a policy brief, The Truth about the Arms Trade Treaty: Debunking the NRA’s Lies”; public campaigning including online actions targeting the US government and Congress; published opinions; and a series of ads targeting members of Congress. And in consultation with lawyers, Oxfam helped instigate an American Bar Association (ABA) analysis of the impact of the Arms Trade Treaty on the US Second Amendment. The ABA’s Center for Human Rights, in a white paper on the Arms Trade Treaty, concluded that “the proposed ATT is consistent with the Second Amendment, as that provision has been construed to date by federal courts, including the Supreme Court, of the United States.”
For the US to ratify the treaty, 67 senators out of 100 would need to approve it. Currently 50 members of the upper house oppose it. However US ratification is not necessary. The treaty will legally enter into force when any 50 of the 193 countries that are members of the UN ratify it.