Arms Trade Treaty

'The missile struck the roof just above where they were gathered. It was a massacre. Three of my daughters were killed and the fourth one was badly injured'
Ahmad Sulayman, whose daughters were among the victims of a double air strike on a house in Tarmala, Jabal al-Zawiya, Syria on 20 August 2012

‘When I was eight, I had to learn how to use an AK-47 gun. I fought for the rebel army for five long years.’
Emmanuel Jal, rapper and former child soldier from Sudan

Had a banana been dropped on Ahmad’s house his daughters would still be alive. Replace Emmanuel’s AK47 with a dinosaur bone and he would have had quite a different childhood. Yet, until very recently, there were tighter controls on the trade in bananas and dinosaur bones than there were on the international trade in arms.

The Control Arms campaign set out to change that. And in March 2012 we won a huge victory at the United Nations: Governments voted to agree the world’s first Arms Trade Treaty. There’s still a way to go before we achieve our aims, but thanks in no small part to your campaigning, we’ve just taken a huge step in the right direction.

The problem

Every year, thousands of people are killed, injured, raped and forced to flee from their homes as a result of the poorly regulated arms trade. 85% of all the killings that we document involve guns. 60% of all of the grave human rights abuses we document involve arms.

Despite it often being clear that arms will be used to fuel serious human rights abuses and even war crimes – such as during the Syria crisis or the violent civil war in Sudan – there is no international legal framework to prevent weapons from entering the country.

The United Nations Security Council may set arms embargoes but these fail because there are no common rules of national regulation. Traffickers find it easy to circumvent the embargoes and some states have little or no controls on transfers - repeatedly making the irresponsible decision to supply arms in questionable circumstances.

Even where national regulation is strong, the dealers, brokers and companies that run the global arms markets often use shell companies and off-shore bank accounts to keep themselves immune to this regulation.

This lack of regulation has led to the death of thousands of men, women and children around the world. And, with the death toll in Syria estimated at 70,000, it shows no sign of letting up.

Twenty years ago we decided that this simply could not be allowed to continue.

The solution

For over two decades we have campaigned for an international treaty to control the arms trade. The point of the Arms Trade Treaty is to close the gaps between the hugely diverse national legislations and instead set standards for all cross-border transfers of any type of conventional weapon.

The aim is to provide clear and binding guidelines to arms-selling countries on when it is OK and when it is not OK to sell or transfer arms. Our key aim in the campaign is for the Treaty to include a rule that prevented the transfer of arms where there is substantial evidence that it would fuel human rights abuses. 

At a special session of the United Nations General Assembly on 2 April 2013, our 20-year battle came to an end. 157 states made history by voting to adopt the Arms Trade Treaty. While this Treaty is not perfect, our ‘golden rule’ did make it in. This Treaty really does have the potential to save thousands of lives and improve many more but first we need to see it ratified.

Where next?

We said that the battle was over. It’s not quite. In order for the Treaty to enter into force at least 50 countries must introduce national legislation to ratify it. The Treaty opens for signatures and ratification at the UN General Assembly on 3 June. And we are hard at work behind the scenes to ensure we get the numbers soon after that.

The stronger show of support on 3 June, the more meaningful the Treaty will be. We’re working to ensure that the UK government is one of the first to sign.

Read about the campaign for ratification
Read the campaign evaluation