Fate Of The Arms Trade Treaty – Analysis


By Prashant Dikshit

The decision by the General Assembly (GA) of the United Nations to drop deliberations on the Arms Trade Treaty has stymied a laudable process which had commenced in 2003. Some analysts believe that it is now beyond redemption. But foisting the blame entirely on the Americans will not be right because amongst the P5 countries neither the Russians, nor the Chinese (PRC) wanted the treaty to go through, specifically the way it was taking shape; also due to the nature of its ingredients. The Indian actions also indicate the country’s own misgivings. Yet at the same time, experts also believe that the role of the GA is not ultimate and it is limited to conveying the sense of the house. The real action takes place at the Security Council (UNSC) and had the treaty reached this forum in its current form, then it would have invariably been subjected to a veto.

The current timing seems especially unfavourable to the treaty. With the elections in the US on the anvil, the Obama administration does not wish to alienate a sizable constituency which is not very considerate of further gun control. In the perceptions of the Native Americans the right to bear arms is fundamental as it draws strength from the 2nd amendment to the US Bill of rights. As the evolving treaty document would have led to a rehash of existing domestic gun control laws and which would perhaps, have called for a registration process for the purposes of exports, the gun lobby mounted a pre-emptive campaign through the legislators. The threat seemingly worked although it related only to Small Arms and Light Weapons, only a segment of weapons listed in the arms register, needed to be reported upon. The NGOs who had lobbied extremely hard with the Obama administration to support the treaty and had succeeded in a policy reversal earlier, felt cheated. The biggest disappointment had come to several African countries which saw the ATT as a saviour from the onslaught of unfettered weapons infusion by military powers. The only silver lining was the American promise of consensus driven treaty down the line.

The Russian and Chinese stances had stemmed from geo-political and profit motives. Successive regime changing rebellions, now termed as Arab Springs, were the primary motivations driving Russian hesitation. In Russia, their active participation in the global arms sales was considered pivotal to their economic well being. Their clients had fallen like nine pins. They had commenced with Libya and were now afflicting Syria, a powerful ally and a weapons importer. Their policy decision was to step in and intervene against any unilateral action by the western powers.

As far as the Chinese are concerned, they are building a very strong constituency in Sub Saharan Africa through weapon sales. A screen was attempted to be drawn over a commercial endeavour which the observers termed as “a case of unbridled capitalism.” But more importantly, the Chinese energy needs driven relationship with Iran is acquiring strategic overtones spurring the former to prevent a counter development should the ATT come about.

Through out the deliberations of the ATT spanning nearly a decade, India earned only a pithy remark when an observer pointed out that the Indians were always working on sidelines and never in the forefront. This Indian wariness is seen due to a fixation that the country’s feverish military modernization programmes will somehow be impeded if the ATT comes about. It will take away its sovereignty of actions and most fearfully, chase the foreign vendor and a possible collaborator away. Even worse is a scenario speculated where India will become a self-reliant weapons manufacturer and will not be able to exploit this commercial potential.

India must acknowledge that the US will remain circumspect in acquiescing to the canons of control to sign a unique binding document like the ATT. There are no parallels in this realm specially for regulating arms transfers at the global level. But India has lived with substantial freedom despite the UN Arms Register to which all countries including India periodically send data about the imports as well as exports. This has been a voluntary exercise since its inception in 1991 and the Indian state has actively participated. The only difference then, is that by signing the treaty it will only be accepting a legal commitment. And in honouring such a promise India will only work towards its own benefit in the long run. Therefore, should India not work towards a fearless document?

Prashant Dikshit
Air Commodore (Retd), Editor, Salute Magazine
email: [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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