A Banner Year for Conventional Arms Control? the Arms Trade Treaty and the Small Arms Challenge

By Meyer, Paul | Global Governance, April-June 2014 | Go to article overview

A Banner Year for Conventional Arms Control? the Arms Trade Treaty and the Small Arms Challenge


Meyer, Paul, Global Governance


THE CONTROL OF CONVENTIONAL ARMS HAS OFTEN SEEMED THE POOR COUSIN of the global efforts to control weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Since the advent of the atomic era, the focus of arms control and disarmament activity has been overwhelmingly on nuclear weapons and their lesser, if still ugly, stepsisters of biological and chemical weapons. The initial multilateral arms control agreements concerned themselves with limits on the testing of nuclear weapons and, shortly thereafter, with their nonproliferation (e.g., the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968). Bilateral US-Soviet/Russian arms control arrangements also predominantly dealt with the reduction of strategic nuclear forces and restraints on deployments of defenses against (nuclear-tipped) ballistic missiles. Efforts to reduce major conventional weapon systems were also taken up in the 1980s in the context of negotiations between the opposing alliances of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, eventually culminating in the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty) of 1989. This treaty provided for a massive reduction in the conventional forces that had confronted each other for years in Central Europe and established a new, far more stable security order on the continent. Even the CFE Treaty, however, tended to be overshadowed by other major disarmament agreements concluded in those heady post-Cold War days: the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (1987), Chemical Weapons Convention (1993), Comprehensive (Nuclear) Test Ban Treaty (1996), and various US-Russian bilateral strategic nuclear arms accords of the 1990s and early 2000s (e.g., the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty).

From one perspective, the focus on WMD and nuclear weapons in particular is understandable. These after all are weapons that have a capacity for apocalyptic destruction. However, given the prevailing taboo on WMD use (not since 1945 for nuclear weapons, and only a handful of incidents involving chemical weapons), the impact on humans is more a grave potential than a painful reality. Conventional arms, including by this term not only the major weapon systems such as tanks, artillery, and armored combat vehicles but also the portable small arms and light weapons (SALW), are the tools of daily destruction around the world. It is this category of armament that, as former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan once described, are the real weapons of mass destruction. (1) These are the weapons that are actually employed in conflicts and that take the greatest toll, not only of combatants, but also of civilians willfully targeted or simply caught in the cross-fire.

The year 2013 was marked by two significant achievements in the realm of multilateral conventional arms control. The first was the adoption by the UN General Assembly in April of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the first legally binding agreement to establish common standards for the international transfer of conventional weapons, including SALW. The second was the unanimous adoption by the UN Security Council of Resolution 2117 at its meeting of 26 September addressing the SALW issue as a threat to international peace and security. This is only the second time that the Council has passed a resolution on this theme. There is reason to celebrate both of these achievements but also to subject them to some critical scrutiny as to what these actions by the General Assembly and the Security Council, respectively, actually mean for dealing with the problems raised by conventional weapons. To better judge the significance of the 2013 developments, it is necessary to place them in their historical context.

Past UN Action on Conventional Arms

The UN came relatively late to addressing the security and humanitarian challenges posed by conventional arms and, especially, SALW. The UN Register of Conventional Arms was established in 1991 to attempt some transparency over international trade in major weapons systems, but it did not include (and still does not) provision for SALW to be included in the same manner as the seven other categories of weaponry. …

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