Regulating weapons where it matters most


The First Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) will take place in Cancún, Mexico, from 24 – 27 August this year. This conference is the first of its kind, bringing together relevant stakeholders to discuss a common framework and setting the tone of how the treaty will be implemented.

The conference is especially important for African states – not only because of their contribution in having the treaty adopted, but also because Africa remains vulnerable to poorly regulated trade in conventional weapons, including small arms and light weapons.

The ATT is the first multilateral treaty regulating the international trade in conventional arms. It opened for signature on 3 June 2013, and entered into force on 24 December 2014.

African states have been a driving force in negotiating the treaty. The African Union (AU) spearheaded a continental initiative that led to the continent’s common position, adopted in January 2013, where African states agreed to a set of shared objectives. It represents a landmark achievement for African states and shows their commitment to influence and shape the international security and arms control agenda.

Africa remains vulnerable to poorly regulated trade in conventional weapons
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While African states were at the forefront of campaigning for the treaty to be adopted, the process of ratifying the ATT on the continent has been comparatively slow.

Some experts believe this could be due to the bureaucratic ratification process, but also because countries have more pressing priorities – such as managing ongoing conflicts.

Of the 69 states that have ratified the treaty, only 10 are African – Burkina Faso, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and South Africa. Interestingly, eight of the 10 African states parties are from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), while only Chad and South Africa are non-ECOWAS member states.

By comparison, most states from Latin America and the Caribbean have ratified the treaty, as well as all members of the European Union. It is hoped that this delay will prove temporary, and that Africa will reclaim its position on the frontline.

During a recent AU-hosted meeting of senior government officials in Addis Ababa attended by 40 African states and key organisations, it was made clear that the Cancún conference would provide an opportunity for states that have not acceded to the treaty to participate as observers. As one delegate put it, ‘…when someone speaks in a room [whether as an observer or as a full member], others have no choice but to listen’.

African states have been a driving force in negotiating the ATT, but only 10 have ratified it
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Thus, in addition to the 10 African states parties with voting rights, all African states participating in the conference will be able to voice their concerns or suggestions. This could have a strong and positive influence on the discussions and ensure that African views and interests are fully taken on board.

During the preparatory process, two issues have, however, become unnecessarily politicised: the location of the secretariat, which must be established to assist states in implementing the treaty; and the individual who will head it. These two issues should always have remained technical, not political.

The candidate cities are Geneva, Port-of-Spain and Vienna. Regardless of where the secretariat is based, what matters is the quality of the infrastructure, accessibility and the services provided by the host country. As for the choice of the director, skills and expertise should be the main criteria. States from the Global South will only benefit if a technical approach is used. In this way, suitable individuals are given a chance to apply for positions in the secretariat.  

To be fully effective, international instruments like the ATT need support from all states
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Given that the ATT is now in force, the next step is to promote its objectives and encourage states to actively participate in implementing the treaty. In Africa, as in other parts of the world, states will face a number of challenges in implementing the treaty: human and technical resources remain scarce and are subject to competing priorities. Fortunately, the treaty calls for cooperation among states and has also established an assistance mechanism.

One of the tasks of the secretariat will be to match offers with requests for assistance in both implementing the treaty and promoting international cooperation. At the national level, the treaty calls for mechanisms that control relevant trade activities. Various measures are therefore expected from states to efficiently control activities related to the import, export, brokering, transit and trans-shipment of conventional weapons. 

A trust fund has been established under the United Nations to mobilise resources and improve assistance in support of the ATT. Since the fund started in 2013, 26 projects have already been funded at a cost of approximately US$4 million. The fund also aims to improve coordination, monitoring and increased sustainability.

African states should remain committed to fully implementing the ATT with the same vigour and determination shown in adopting the treaty. Until this happens, Africa will remain more vulnerable than any other continent to illicit trade in conventional weapons.

Nelson Alusala, ISS Consultant, Slu Hlongwa, Senior Researcher and Nicolas Kasprzyk, ISS Consultant, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria

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