Originally Published 2013-04-06 00:00:00 Published on Apr 06, 2013
The ATT has finally been adopted. But it remains to be seen if the treaty could really be implemented as major players like China, India, Russia have not favoured it. Even the US could find it difficult to ratify ATT back home despite voting in its favour.
ATT implementation remains questionable
After seven years of negotiations, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) has finally been passed at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Hundred and fifty four countries, including the US, voted in favour of the treaty while Iran, Syria and North Korea opposed it. India, whose concerns remained unaddressed in the final version, abstained from voting along with 22 other nations that also included Russia and China. This makes effective implementation of the treaty questionable.

Efforts to bring an ATT started towards the end of the last century when a group of nobel laureates drafted the Nobel Peace Laureates International Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers in 1997. This effort was furthered with support from European countries in mid 2000s. With support from the UK, a resolution was adopted in 2006 at the UNGA to draft a treaty to regulate arms trade. While NGOs supporting the ATT argued that the treaty was necessary to save lives and curb violence in many developing and underdeveloped regions, analysts also highlighted the need for the arms exporting nations to gain more control of the trade. With new players like China becoming major exporters and defence budgets rising in several regions, a need was felt by the traditional arms exporting nations to gain more control. After five resolutions and two meetings to draft the ATT, the treaty today seeks to regulate trade of eight categories of arms: battle tanks; armoured combat vehicles; large-calibre artillery systems; combat aircraft; attack helicopters; warships; missiles and missile launchers; and small arms and light weapons (SALW).

While India had supported the ATT initiative, some of its key concerns were not addressed in the final draft of the treaty. Denial of small arms and light weapons (SALW) to terrorists and non-state actors was the major issue which India sought to address through the treaty. Better balance between the rights and obligations of supplier and importer nations was another major concern that India had sought during the ATT negotiations. A close look at the treaty's content shows how it does not meet India's expectations.

India's position on the ATT is closely linked to its security. Often insurgent groups and terrorist groups active in India have received external support, not only financial but also weapons and ammunition. Pakistan and China have played a crucial role in sustaining many of these movements in India. It is reported that Chinese smugglers operating near India's northeastern borders were responsible for transferring weapons to insurgent groups active inside India's borders. On the other hand, arms caches with Pakistan's fingerprints have been seized along the border quite often.

At the very onset of the ATT debate, India had underlined that denying access to SALW to non-state actors and terrorist groups is the priority. "India's security interests have been affected by illicit and irresponsible transfers, especially of small arms, light weapons and explosives... We have therefore maintained that the priority must be combating and eliminating the illicit trade in such arms," said India's Ambassador to the UN in July 2010. Ever since, India had pushed for a stronger reference on the supply of SALW to non-state actors and terrorists in the ATT clauses.

The ATT states that a supplier nation cannot supply weapons which could be used to "commit or facilitate an act constituting an offence under international conventions or protocols relating to terrorism to which the exporting State is a Party." However, this could imply that a supplier nation can authorise a transfer if it is not a party to these international conventions. This was also highlighted by India during the July 2012 negotiations but the clause remains unaddressed.

Clauses in the ATT tilt the balance in the favour of the exporters. It gives powers to the supplier nations to reassess the deal in case the supplier nation feels that the recipient state is likely to violate the prerequisites highlighted in the ATT. These prerequisites also refer to human rights violations, gender based violence or violence against children, and corruption. History has taught us that the application of these terms varies, often dictated by geopolitical developments and imperatives. India had argued that these clauses should be dropped as they go beyond the objective of the ATT.

Today, India is the largest importer of weapons in the world and is likely to retain that position in the near future, or at least remain dependent on imports given the poor state of its own domestic military industrial complex. The emerging security dynamics in Asia will compel New Delhi to continue modernising its armed forces. In such a scenario, India feels that the ATT unduly favours the supplier nations.

Though the ATT has been adopted, what remains to be seen is that if the treaty could really be implemented to regulate the multi-billion dollar arms trade given that major players such as India, Russia and China have not favoured the treaty. Even the US, which faced immense domestic pressure to reject the ATT, could find it difficult to ratify it back home despite voting in the treaty's favour.

(Rahul Prakash is a Junior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.