Home The Beguiling Arms Trade Treaty

The Beguiling Arms Trade Treaty


What the Arms Trade Treaty in effect seems to do is to empower arms manufacturing countries to decide the manner and circumstances buyer countries are to use them in. Outrageously and disdainfully, both, profit and political leverage will be appropriated by the seller. They exporters could well issue a fiat that India, an essentially buyer country, will not use imported arms against the Maoists or Jihadis even as they are supplied arms by international benefactors clandestinely. Given the level of international patronage and support of evangelical organisations to the Maoists, this scenario is plausible. It is also not without precedence. Nicaragua abstained from the recent voting on the Arms Trade Treaty on 02 April this year in the UN General Assembly for reasons rooted in the past. The clandestine USD 19 million military aid by the US to Contra rebels to fight the Communist Sandinista regime in the early 80s is well documented. It was Iran under the aegis of Israel that served as the conduit following a top secret National Security Decision Directive 17 (NSDD-17) to the CIA. This unthinkable happened when the US-Iran, and Israel-Iran relations were perhaps as inimical then if not more.


Nothing has changed. In the third week of April 2013, the US Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the US would double its aid to Syrian rebels from USD 125 million to USD 250 million, to overthrow the Bashar-al-Assad government. The US administration has been laying emphasis on ‘non-lethal’ supplies to the rebels and evoking the concern of the US President that ‘lethal’ supplies may fall into the hands of Islamic militants. Such posturing is merely for public consumption. The truth as reported by New York Times (Arms Airlift to Syria Rebels Expands, With Aid From C.I.A., dated 24 March 2013) is that the Syrian rebels are being supplied by the CIA through Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, involving some 160 military transport flights. This serves a stark warning as to why India should carefully view the Arms Trade Treaty hammered at the UN Conference (18-28 March 2013).


Arms Trade Treaty (ATT)

The recent UN legislation on International Treaty to Combat Arms Trade was passed by 154 votes in 193 membered UN General Assembly. Ostensibly and beguilingly, the treaty seeks to regulate trade and transfer of weapons so as to constantly monitor its end use in order to prevent war crimes, terrorism or human right violations. Signatory countries would have to report and verify sales to other countries to a UN body. The other laudable argument behind initiating this legislation was the dire necessity to frame set of rules to govern trade in conventional weapons as in most other areas of world trade. It covers tanks, APCs, large caliber artillery, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships and importantly small arms and light weapons. The journey towards the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) has been incremental since 2006, when the UN General Assembly passed a resolution by which the views on ATT regarding its feasibility scope and draft, were elicited from the member states.  

It is pertinent to note that when the drafting process was initiated in 2006, the Bush administration voted against the resolution. Even now, the Republicans and few Democrats are against the Treaty as they perceive it is a tool to undermine and circumvent the gun laws guaranteed by the Constitution. It is imperative for 50 UN members to ratify the Treaty to be put into effect. In theory only those countries which sign on the Treaty will be bound by it. The draft treaty, which significantly seeks to regulate USD 70 billion global arms trade, was circulated by USA’s close allies Britain, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Finland and Japan. Syria, Iran and North Korea voted against and 23 countries, which notably include Russia and China registered their reservations by tactfully abstaining. The latter also include India’s neighbours Myanmar and Sri Lanka which have been vilified by the West dominated international order for human rights record.  Probably the undoing of the regimes is that they managed to preserve the integrity of their respective countries in face of onslaughts by most vicious insurgent and terrorist groups.


Loopholes in ATT

The opponents see too many loopholes in the draft treaty, the most glaring being the absence of the provision of banning sales to ‘armed groups’. They also feel that it is overwhelmingly loaded in favour of arms exporting countries such as the US and the UK. Most contentiously, the draft treaty prohibits transfer of conventional weapons if it promotes ‘act of genocide’, ‘crimes against humanity’, and ‘war crimes’. It enjoins that a country contemplating to transfer arms, must evaluate whether it would be used to violate ‘human rights’ or undermine ‘peace and security’. The opponents of the treaty feel that these terms are subjective and are designed to restrict their influence and strategic maneuver space in regional and international arena, thus providing further fillip to the developed world.


Exporters versus Importers

A comparison between the world’s largest exporters and importers of conventional weapons to large extent indicates the stakes of some countries and their votting pattern in the UN General Assemly. While US and the European countries, who constitute more than 60 percent of the world’s global arms market have voted in favour, their main competitor Russia (26 per cent) and China (5 per cent) have abstained. Moreover, in countries like US and UK there are strict parliamentary controls over arms exports which puts them at disadvantage compared to other exporting countries by restraining their export potential. The ATT may be  thus be a device for creating a level playing field. The sheer volume of arms import by China (6 per cent) and India (12 per cent) explains the concerns with regard to the motives of the draft treaty, as each of these countries are regional powers in their own right having respective spheres of influence. 

The countries which oppose feel that the final text of the treaty suffers from imbalance between ‘rights and obligations’ of exporters and importers. It is much short of unambiguity in addressing ‘terrorists and unlawful non-state actors’. No country in the world has been subjected to unremitting terrorism for more than three decades, as a tool of proxy war by its nuclear neighbours, as India.  The Indian threat perception with regard to terrorism is therefore acute. The implication of the treaty is that these sponsor states of terrorism will have no accountability and enjoy relative impunity while indulging in clandestine arming of terrorist groups by their respective governments. Terrorist outfits like LeT or Hizb-ul-Mujahideen will continue to bleed India under the strategic umbrella of   their sponsor Pakistan with the same or enhanced degree of deniability.


Indian Concerns

Undoubtedly if the ATT was to be universally adopted and religiously adhered to, it would entail reduction in levels of violence in states suffering from internecine war. But this is a utopian proposition. For instance, it is known that China has been supplying arms, both indigenous and otherwise, of various categories to insurgent groups including the Maoists. Even Pakistan sponsored terrorist groups are being equipped with Chinese made arms. It is impractical, rather absurd to expect that China would reveal the details of its arms supplies to Pakistan. It may be mentioned that 50 per cent of Pakistan’s arms are presently sourced from China. There are also reports of existence of AK47 manufacturing facility provided by China to the Kachins from where the Maoists in India are also sourcing. The draft treaty fails completely to address the Indian security concerns. Moreover, India being the largest importer of arms with little indigenous capability will in effect be hamstrung in influencing the security discourse in the region if it were to adopt the treaty. Therefore, and rightly so, those opposing the ATT find the treaty to be loaded with ulterior geopolitical and commercial considerations.


Geopolitical Mischief

There is an element of geopolitical mischief in the treaty, as it vests the exporting countries with the unilateral discretion to assess whether the exported arms would undermine ‘peace and security’. The exporting countries are bound to interpret this as per the vicissitudes of their geopolitical interests. For example, the Americans justify arms supply to Pakistan on the plea that it serves to maintain ‘balance of power’ in an otherwise hostile region. The same provision can be applied to deny weapons to country like Syria and Iran. It is for this reason that Syria, Iran and North Korea voted against ATT. These countries constitute the flash-points, nuclear or otherwise, in East Asia and West Asia. Countries which oppose the ATT are also apprehensive that the exporting countries, armed with such provisions are bound to use it arbitrarily without any compensation, monetary or otherwise.


Voting Pattern

The general voting pattern of respective countries in the UN General Assembly reflects their geopolitical and security concerns. The countries in the western-hemisphere have overwhelmingly voted in favour and most of them in the eastern-hemisphere have either abstained or voted against. It may be reiterated that most arms exporters are in the western-hemisphere. China’s share in exports is only five percent while it is still dependent on imports for state-of-art equipment.  Pakistan sources 50 percent of its equipment from China and North-Korea is entirely dependent on the latter. These two countries are strategic proxies of China, and therefore much of the arms supplies to them by China are not transparent. Therefore it did not hurt Pakistan to vote in favour of ATT.

The negation or reservation to ATT in the eastern-hemisphere is because it is in the throes of intense geopolitical flux and contains some of the most incendiary flashpoints, i.e. the Korean peninsula, Af-Pak Region, North-African region, West Asia to include Israel, Iran and Syria. The eastern-hemisphere also has the Indian Ocean which is now critical for energy supplies and health of the western economies. Therefore, the countries in this hemisphere see the ATT as a tool to perpetuate the western dominance of the IOR. Russia is the main competitor to the US and Europe in the global arms market and probably sees the ATT as a device to curtail its export share and geopolitical influence.  This perhaps is why Russia  decided to abstain.



The country, however, most impacted by the ATT is India, being the highest importer of arms in the world. 12 percent of global arms imports are to India. This is the price we are paying for lack of indigenisation of our arms industry. This has not only negated our potential for extending geopolitical influence but has been manipulating dispensations and influencing governance of the country. In the dirty world of arms trade, politics and arms have a symbiotic relationship. The ATT in its present form may yet emerge as even more formidable tool to leverage, circumscribe and subordinate India.



RSN Singh is a former R&AW Officer and the author of “Military Factor in Pakistan”

Views expressed are personal. 


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R S N Singh
Associate Editor, Indian Defence Review
Contact at: [email protected]
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