The ATT and previous arms control instruments: Convergence and progress

(Michael Melaku)

Endorsed three years ago by United Nations General Assembly and entering in to force in 2014, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is a legally-binding mutual agreement that creates universal principles for the international trade in conventional weapons and seeks to reduce the illicit arms trade. With 47 African countries voting in favour of ATT[1], the treaty intends to reduce human distress by improving regional security and stability.

Many African countries that are experiencing bloody conflicts are victims of uncontrolled weapons and illicit arms trade that flow in the region. The case of Somalia during the cold war is an apt example of uncontrolled weapons flows affecting the country and the region in the context of the cold war competition between the then Soviet Union and USA[2]. The arms flows into the region intensified inter-state and intra-state conflicts in the region. The cycles of militarization and violent conflict during the cold war had deleterious economic effects on the Horn.

There is also a very plausible argument to make for the link between the proliferation of SALWs (Small Arms and Light Weapons) and state collapse in Somalia. The proliferation of SALWs was a critical factor in the ubiquity of warlords and the eruption of the internecine conflicts that have devastated Somalia.

In the Horn of Africa, state failure, internecine intra-state conflict and consequent socio-economic collapse have been fuelled by the illegal trade and proliferation of conventional weapons. Even if various initiatives have been made to realize the aim of ATT, of the 54 African countries, 37 countries are signatories, while only 17 countries ratified the treaty.[3]

Previous Initiatives and the ATT

There were several initiatives formulated regarding the international trade in weapons and ammunition at different levels before the ATT ranging from the United Nations Programme of Action (PoA) that came in to being in July 2001 to regional arms control agreements in Africa from 2001 onwards.[4] The PoA on illicit trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) sought to manage all aspects of illicit weapons. On the other hand, the regional arms control agreements in Africa (Protocol on the Control of Firearms, Ammunition and other Related Materials (2001); the Nairobi Protocol on the Control, Prevention and Reduction of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) in the Great Lakes Region; the Horn of Africa and Bordering States (2004)) established firm control over weapon accumulation and arms transfer. The agreements were instrumental in maintenance of regional peace and security.[5]

The regional frameworks proved to be inadequate to control illicit arms trade and flows as the trade in arms has transnational characteristics necessitating a framework that engages all international actors without being limited to specific countries/continents. It is this understanding that led to the development of ATT as a means to strengthen previous initiatives.

Article one of the ATT clearly outlines the objective of the treaty i.e.[6] to establish the highest possible common international standards for regulating or improving the regulation of the international trade in conventional arms; and prevent, eradicate the illicit trade in conventional arms and prevent their diversion. The treaty requires all states-parties to adopt basic regulations and approval processes for the flow of weapons across international borders, establishes common international standards that must be met before arms exports are authorized, and requires annual reporting of imports and exports to a treaty secretariat. In particular, the treaty requires that states establish and maintain a national control system, including a national control list and designate competent national authorities in order to have an effective and transparent national control system regulating the transfer of conventional arms.[7]

The ATT in comparison with earlier initiatives such as the PoA and the Firearms Protocol, is more limited in scope (covering only small arms and light weapons), but wider in some areas of application (e.g. production, stockpile management, weapons-marking and tracing, transfers, collection and destruction). In contrast to PoA, ATT is legally binding on all states parties making it to have more force than PoA.

In supplementing and enhancing PoA provisions on international transfer controls (export, import, transit) and brokering, the ATT will make a significant contribution to the existing framework governing international transfers of SALW as ATT not only addresses the demand side but also focuses on the supply side as well. The fact that previous initiatives before the ATT were not legally binding and the lack of transparency on the part of governments in disclosing their military equipment accumulation coupled with the lack of political will by major arm supplier countries, can be taken as some of the major reasons for not achieving the aims of ATT.

Infographic: Arms exporters market share, 2013 [Credit: SIPRI]
Infographic: Arms exporters market share, 2013 [Credit: SIPRI]

How Should ATT become effective?

The objective of ATT is praiseworthy as it aims to lessen human suffering through improving regional security and stability. However, to make it more effective and practical, further initiatives and actions must be undertaken.

Creating awareness about the importance of ATT (Strong Campaign)

The general public’s awareness about the aims of the ATT should be enhanced through a methodical awareness creation and raising campaign. This campaign would have the objective of bringing on board countries that have not signed or ratified the treaty. The awareness raising campaign should employ a variety of strategies and seek to change awareness at the higher levels of government and simultaneously at the grass roots. Different Medias would play an instrumental role. The medias must have a significant role in telling the stories of so called “failed states” such as Somalia and the role the uncontrolled trade in weapons and small arms played in the destabilization of Somalia.

Use country specific approach

In African countries like Ethiopia where cultural aspects play a significant role in implementing policies, the approach should consider the socio-cultural and economic aspects of the country. In the lowlands of Ethiopia, much of the population practices nomadic pastoralism. These pastoralist communities attach high value to bearing arms in order to protect, or gain access to, water supplies, grazing lands and livestock. On the other hand the Horn has porous borders which make the flow of illicit arms trade easy and a source of economic income for many at the border areas. Hence while designing strategy to sink in the concepts and principles of ATT, a country specific approach must be considered in order to address the livelihood impact in that specific country. This approach will facilitate the implementation of ATT.

Work closely with government and other stakeholders

ATT can only be achieved through the collaborative efforts of all stakeholders and closely working with government. The ATT agenda should not be perceived as an external agenda imposition on government which requires justifying the ATT in terms of its contributions to the peace, security and development nexus. Various mechanisms must be designed to engage civil societies, government and other stakeholders.

The Role of the UN and the AU

The UN Peace and Security Council and the AU Peace and Security Council should be at the forefront in realizing the ATT. The aim and principles of ATT should be on the agenda of AU head of states annual meetings and UN General Assembly meetings. In order for this to happen, formal and informal diplomatic lobbying using countries that have ratified the treaties should be made. The UN and the AU must play a significant role in enforcing countries to join, sign and ratify the treaty.

Establishing regional offices

There must be a centralized command that works full time to realize the implementation of ATT’s objectives and principles. There must be a task force that engages in various countries specific and regional activities. Hence in order to coordinate efforts and work collaboratively there must be a regional office either within the AU, UN or a separate entity.


[1] Arms Control Association, The Arms Trade Treaty at a Glance , accessed on 1 June, 2016.

[2] Michael Melaku, Arming States during the Cold War, research paper presented at Institute of Peace and Security Studies, 2013.

[3] United Nations office for disarmament affairs, The Arms Trade Treaty, Basic Facts , accessed on 1 June,2016.

[4] The Arms Trade Treaty and Regional Arms Agreements: Complementary not Competing, Oxfam International.

[5] Elli Kytomaki, The Arms Trade Treaty Interaction with other related agreements, research paper, Chantam House, The Royal Institute of Security Affairs ,2015.

[6] UN Conference on Arms Trade Treaty, New York ,2013 and 2014.

[7] Ibid


First published on Life Peace journal, on July 1, 2016. Michael Melaku is Manager at the Horn of Africa Press Institute, sister organization of Media and Communication Center, The Reporter Newspaper. He holds a Master of Arts degree from Leipzig University (Germany) and Addis Ababa University (Ethiopia), Institute of Peace and Security Studies, in Global Studies and Bachelor of Arts degree from Addis Ababa University, in Sociology and Social Anthropology. He has an extensive research experience on migration, peace and security issues. He can be reached at [email protected]

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