Features | Diplomacy

The Arms Trade Treaty in the Asia-Pacific

Small steps toward improving a difficult relationship.

The Arms Trade Treaty in the Asia-Pacific
Credit: INSIDER IMAGES/Keith Bedford

The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is the first multilateral treaty to regulate the international trade in conventional arms. In this respect, it is a landmark treaty for the international community, focusing on an issue that is of highest importance for many Asia-Pacific countries – trying to find and establish mechanisms to control unregulated flows of arms. Since its entry into force on December 24, 2014, 130 states have signed the treaty and so far 92 became State Parties. However, when looking at the regional divide of ratifications and accessions on a world-wide scale, the Asia-Pacific shows by far the lowest numbers in global comparison. The past years didn’t result in much progress; efforts to tighten arms transfer controls in the region seem to be at a stalemate. What is the reason for this inactivity, given so many countries in the region face significant small arms proliferation problems which pose threats to both national and regional security? Which incentives could help to pave the way for this new security and counter-terrorism tool to take full effect?

The Arms Trade Treaty: Security-Enhancing Effects

The ATT is to be seen in the greater scope of what is commonly known as export control, or, more positively connoted, Strategic Trade Control (STC). The main security-enhancing effect of the treaty is to be found in the requirement to introduce comprehensive control systems to make sure that exports, imports, transits, and transshipments of conventional weapons will not be diverted and end up in the hands of illicit actors. Thus, the ATT can serve as another instrument inside the global anti-terrorism toolbox. The treaty scope requires states to introduce legislation and establish comprehensive control systems to perform case-by-case risk assessments. To do so, states must have competent national licensing authorities that check relevant control lists of military items. Questions of the end-use and the end-user of weapons shipments are thus essential for such authorities to consider when reviewing applications for arms transfer licenses. Possible cases when a license must be denied include those where arms might end up in situations where crimes against humanity occur.

Additional benefits of ratifying the treaty include the transparency it brings to international arms trade through its reporting obligations and the regulation of brokering activities. The latter will make it more and more difficult for the Lords of War — as portrayed in the popular Nicolas Cage movie on Victor Bout — to operate under the radar of international controls. Applying ATT provisions can thereby lead the way to more overall reliability in legal arms transfers. At the same time, these measures also tackle illicit arms transfers on the black market, reducing their impact, such as the ubiquitous link between the proliferation of weapons and their negative economic and social development. After all, the ATT and its provisions can be seen as a common sense treaty that asks minimum obligations from states. The ATT’s scope of control is the floor, not the ceiling.

Slow Progress in the Asia-Pacific

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Comparing the Asia-Pacific to other developing regions, such as Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa, it becomes obvious that acceptance and popularity of the ATT has progressed rather slowly. Up to date the number of ATT ratifications within the Asia-Pacific remains at an absolute low of only six out of 53 countries.

In Oceania, these supporters are Australia, New Zealand, Tuvalu, and Samoa. It is within the Pacific Islands where one can see probably the most forward movement in putting the ATT in practice on a regional basis. This is mainly due to the work of the Pacific Island Forum Secretariat, with the help of the government of New Zealand.  The Secretariat published an ATT blueprint legislation in an effort to support the Pacific states in their ambitions to ratify and implement the treaty framework. Amongst its 18 member countries, ratifications by Tuvalu, Samoa, and signatures to the treaty by Kiribati, Nauru, and Palau prove these regional efforts to be at least partly successful. Australia and New Zealand as strong ATT supporters also played a major role in these efforts to make ATT gain momentum in the region.

In eastern Asia, Japan and South Korea are the sole active supporters of the treaty. For many years, South Korea has viewed STC as an important security instrument, mainly preventing North Korea from acquiring products that may add to its conventional and unconventional weapons arsenal. After the Tokyo subway sarin gas attack in 1995, Japanese authorities started to give the overall topic of STC ever more emphasis and also began to promote the goal of establishing a tight regional network of sensitive items controls amongst their neighbors. For both countries, ratifying and implementing the ATT was an easy and logical next step that fit in their overall security strategy.

What about the rest of the region? In South Asia, only Bangladesh signed the ATT in 2013 – and has not ratified or taken any further steps into that direction ever since. All other SAARC members –Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – have so far abstained from signing the treaty. Despite increased counterterrorism efforts after the July 2016 Dhaka attack, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s list of priority policies does not include becoming ATT State Party. Small arms trafficking along the Bangladesh-India land routes remains of high frequency, and extremist groups within the country seem to have no trouble acquiring, accumulating, and finally using them. Improving national arms transfer standards as supplementary instrument to existing counter-extremism efforts is unfortunately not a conclusion drawn within Bangladesh as well as the other SAARC members.

Some voices might say it is mainly the regional hegemon’s disinterest in the global ATT process that is preventing Dhaka from doing so. At the beginning of the UN’s creation of the treaty, New Delhi was quite active bringing in its own ideas how the treaty should be designed during the UN preparatory process. After many of these ideas were rejected, the country seems to have lost its interest in the process. Concerns that India’s strong dependency on foreign arms imports could be affected adversely by unilateral decisions by arms exporters seems to be another reason for its abstention in the UN general assembly. And without this key player’s role as a trailblazer, progress within South Asia seems to remain complicated.

In Southeast Asia, the situation seems to be slightly more lively. The treaty was signed by Cambodia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, even though none of them have ratified so far. In the past decade, all of these countries received substantial support from international outreach programs to develop their STC systems. To name the most recent example, the Philippines’ Strategic Trade Management Act was adopted in late 2015 after having been one of President Benigno Aquino III’s top 20 policy priorities during his last term in office. A key component of this success is the substantial technical assistance given from the EU and U.S. governments. The new system is a clever one, able to conduct both dual-use items as well as arms transfer controls, thereby putting Manila in a position to ratify and implement the ATT without any greater difficulties.

The other half of ASEAN member countries, namely Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam currently show no interest in even signing the treaty.

The reasons for this slow overall process in Asia-Pacific are of course diverse in nature. The most obvious ones can best be described as a triad of deficits: First, a lack of regional institutions pushing the topic forward. Second, a lack of capacity. And third, possibly most importantly, a lack of mutual trust amongst states themselves when it comes to security-sensitive issues and also toward the ATT content.

Lack of Regional Institutions to Create Spill-Over Effects

One of the main reasons for low numbers of ATT ratification and the seemingly slow pace of its implementation is a lack of strong regional institutions inside the Asia-Pacific that are addressing and coordinating ATT as a topic of importance. Within the EU, harmonization of the ATT was mainly pushed by coordination amongst member states and within EU institutions, allowing 17 EU member states to ratify the framework on the very same day in April 2014. Strong regional frameworks can be effective components to fostering ATT universalization. Evidence of this can be found in CARICOM in the Caribbean, UNLIREC in South America, ECOWAS in West Africa, and OSCE in Europe. All of these organizations were involved in various undertakings to put the ATT high on the agendas of their members and foster their efforts in effective implementation. High numbers of ATT ratifications in these regions demonstrate that active regional organizations are better coordinated to achieve the desired results and serve as platforms that promote and guide the ATT process forward.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

So what about such efforts in the Asia-Pacific? As shown above, the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat achieved similar results. Furthermore the United Nations Regional Center for Peace and Disarmament is another actor based in the region that is considered to be promoting ATT. Its role as a UN subbranch is by mandate of course mainly restrained to awareness-raising; the organization, however, arranged a series of conferences to discuss the national and regional benefits of countries joining the treaty framework.

Unfortunately, these are the only two organizations within the whole of the Asia-Pacific dealing with the topic. Indigenous regional organisations in the Asia-Pacific dealing with security issues on an in-depth level are rare. For example, ASEAN forums such as the ASEAN Defense Minister’s Meeting have failed to position themselves as effective platforms to discuss relevant security issues. Arms transfer controls are missing on the agenda of ASEAN, SAARC, and BIMSTEC. There are simply no regional institutions in existence within which ATT plays any significant role. The lack of indigenous regional institutions that coordinate efforts to implement the ATT is clearly preventing the treaty from reaching effect inside the whole region.

Lack of Technical Capacity and Funds to Establish New Agencies

When it comes to upgrading national capacities in any area, there’s always the challenge of building these institutional capabilities – and the natural question is who is actually going to pay for it. The previously mentioned example of Bangladesh shows that a country preoccupied with strengthening its basic security apparatus and functions has a long way to go until successfully being able to establish a full-fledged licensing authority for conventional arms. While well-established national control systems in many cases already fulfill the scope of control ATT requires, countries lacking such an STC culture have to build them, quite often from scratch.

This fact, more than ever, calls for more efforts from the international community to assist partner countries to upgrade their national control systems – both through financial as well as technical assistance. ATT provisions themselves stipulate fostering of international cooperation and international assistance, as to be found in Articles 15 and 16. The ATT Voluntary Trust Fund is established to assist countries in treaty implementation is a first step in that direction. There are also comprehensive programs, e.g. by the European Union, aimed at providing countries with technical knowledge and tailor-made solutions to national capacity-building.

Lack of Mutual Trust Among Regional Players and Toward ATT Itself

Strong security relationships and mutual trust aren’t buzzwords that come to one’s mind when talking about politics within the Asia-Pacific. The lack of strong security-related pillars within the ASEAN Secretariat and SAARC are an institutional expression of this general fact. Security seems to remain exclusive to the national sphere for most countries here; regional coordination and supranational tendencies are not seen as prioritized solution mechanisms. Mutual trust has not been fully established as part of the ASEAN way, as political grievances and divergent national interests still remain among them.

For many countries’ defense ministries specifically, the ATT’s reporting obligations set under Article 13 seem to pose security concerns. For transparency purposes, states are called to report on their yearly imports and exports of arms. Shying away from greater transparency that might reveal national (in)capabilities seems to be natural in a realist’s world. However, in the area of transnational crime, regional coordination and intelligence sharing is key.

Adding to the lack of mutual trust is the lack of trust considering the treaty content. Throughout the Asia-Pacific there are numerous misconceptions of the ATT that still prevail and probably hamper its universalization in the region. The strongest is a misconception, upheld by U.S. lobby groups such as the National Rifle Association, that its provisions affect the right to bear arms, which is not within the scope of the treaty. Neither does the ATT deal with questions such as private gun ownership, limitations to the right to self-defense, nor bans of certain weapons. Lastly, the ATT is not a disarmament treaty, but a treaty to control trade in conventional arms.

Where to Go From Here?

First of all, the international community has to repeatedly stress the ATT’s benefit as efficient security tool. Internationally binding frameworks such as UN Security Council Resolution 1540 (2004), which was introduced as a counterterrorism tool after 9/11, already provide legally binding standards for Strategic Trade Control systems that every country necessarily has to implement. The decision for more countries within the Asia-Pacific to widen these controls toward the scope of the ATT would be a logical next step, promising more national and regional security.

Second, there is a huge chance to accelerate the evolution of tight control systems by knowledge transfer from already established ones. Numerous outreach programs are running in the region, most prominently the EU’s different capacity-building projects on STC and ATT. In ASEAN for example, countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines introduced new STC systems over the last couple of years, taking established EU systems and control lists as blueprints. From a technical standpoint, these systems make it easy to widen the scope of control in compliance with the ATT. Further technical and material support by governmental donors, international organizations, and NGOs is necessary to contribute to ATT universalization.

Third, this support should also take into account the possible role that regional organizations such as the ASEAN Secretariat might play in the future. Addressing and harmonizing arms transfer controls on a regional level is of utmost importance to build a regional network of non-proliferators. Inside these institutions, there is also the chance to build on a culture of mutual trust, which is needed in such a security-sensitive area as arms controls.

Last but not least, misconceptions that strategic trade control aims at private gun controls should be clearly dismissed as myths. The ATT is what its name implies: a trade treaty and not a disarmament imperative. There should be more discussions on the ATT’s numerous advantages, such as benefits to national and regional security, and the function as a platform for regional cooperation to fight transnational threats, including arms proliferation to terrorist networks. Ultimately, ATT and the establishment of effective arms transfer control institutions must be linked with a country’s reputation, as evidence of being a reliable trading partner and as a basis for its access to technology. As soon as this is seen, shared, and discussed on a regional scale within the Asia-Pacific, there is scope for this security tool to spread its benefits.

Michael Weiss is a specialist in arms control and international program management. As Senior Project Manager for Asia-Pacific at the German Federal Office for Economic Affairs and Export Control he implemented different Outreach Programs in strategic trade control and universalization of the Arms Trade Treaty, funded by the Government of Germany and the European Union. The views expressed are purely those of the author and may not be regarded as an official position.