May 22

With or without you: Why Russia cannot dismiss the Arms Trade Treaty as a pointless inconvenience

Written by Anna Macdonald, Director of the Control Arms Secretariat

A big win in Sweden

The Russian Federation issued a statement this week saying it will not be joining the Arms Trade Treaty.

“We don’t see the point,” a senior official is quoted as saying. No surprises there, but try telling that to the people of Syria, who continue to suffer each day. Russian supplies to Syria’s government forces, particularly of explosive munitions and ammunition, have been crucial in keeping Assad in power during four years of civil war and have undoubtedly fuelled many well-documented human rights abuses. Russia said it was “not breaking any laws” by continuing to supply Syria with weapons.

Russia’s most renowned inventor, Mikhail Kalashnikov, who invented the AK-47, is famously quoted as saying: “I wish had invented a lawnmower instead” as he realized the extent of the devastation his creation was causing each year.

Unfortunately the current government in Russia does not feel the same, and Russian exports of the world’s best selling assault rifle reportedly continue at a rate of 150,000 per year with that looking set to double by 2020. Many end up in Africa, where the human cost is exceptionally high, and the related impact on stability, economies and a culture of armed violence works against development efforts. Others fuel the drugs trade related violence across the Americas.

And it is not just the AK-47. Russia is a huge exporter, reportedly delivering weapons to 56 countries and to rebel forces in eastern Ukraine between 2010-2014. Deals are believed to have included the transfer of nine military helicopters to South Sudan in 2011 and also 100 laser-guided bombs to Syria from 2012 to 2013.

Law, as I was reminded recently by a Norwegian legal expert, is the codification of moral principles. It sets down in black and white what society considers is acceptable – and what is not. At the international level, this means enshrining moral principles into a set of rules for the global community in the form of a treaty or convention. For example, the Arms Trade Treaty was created after the world came together and decided a set of rules and regulations were needed to control the global arms trade.

How these rules are put into practice will be the critical test of this very new Treaty. International norms are created when a sufficient number of countries begin to adhere to new principles, and behaving in the “old way” becomes unacceptable. The Mine Ban Treaty is a strong example of how international norms work over time, even on those who do not join a particular treaty.

The adoption of the ATT, and its signature by so many governments, must also be combined with a change in approach – so that it becomes politically unacceptable to transfer weapons that violate the Treaty’s provisions. This is what the creation of new international norms means, and it’s why it is so important for the first States Parties to the ATT to implement it as rigorously as possible.

So why does Russia’s statement matter?

Over the past nine months, ATT signatories have been gathering together in a series of Preparatory Meetings to discuss the rules and infrastructure for the ATT in the future. The first Conference of States parties will meet in August in Mexico City, and take decisions on many procedural issues, which will determine the international mechanisms to implement the Treaty.

Some States, have been arguing that universalization must be the number one goal. They argue that until ALL States are members of the ATT, it will have limited impact.

This is unrealistic. As Russia’s statement indicates, there are some countries that are simply not going to join the ATT in the near future.

Waiting for Russia – and other current opponents to the ATT – to join, or worse, creating weak implementation mechanisms under the misguided hope that this will somehow entice them in, will waste time and still fail to stop the arms transfers in the meantime that wreak havoc among some of the world’s poorest communities.

69 States have now ratified the ATT, and a further 61 have signed it. They must begin applying the Treaty, and showing the world that their pledge to put humanitarian impact before economic profit was for real.

There’s no point in just waiting for more ratifications at this stage. Of course we want to see more countries accede to the treaty – but its success does not depend on this. Once the Treaty is being rigorously implemented even its opponents, such as the Russians, will find it hard to ignore.

And that is when we will see the Treaty start to save lives.

Anna Macdonald is the Director of the Control Arms Secretariat. She has worked on the Arms Trade Treaty since 2002.

Follow her on Twitter @annamac33.