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News, 9/13/2017

Illegal Trade in Conventional Weapons Remains a Problem

In the course of the last five years, the volume of global arms trade increased for the first time to figures exceeding  those recorded during the Cold War. It is estimated that the annual value of international arms  trade is approaching the landmark of USD 100 billion. What does this mean for international security? Or for human rights? Finland currently holds the presidency of the world's only treaty that regulates the international trade in conventional weapons.

Ambassador Korhonen and Izumi Nakamitsu, Under-Secretary General of the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, talk about ways to achieve closer collaboration between the various arms control mechanisms. Photo: Iida-Maria Tammi.

According to a very conservative estimate, every year more than half a million people lose their lives as a consequence of armed violence.  Legally sold weapons may end up in wrong hands over the years. The destabilising effects of unregulated arms trade are rarely localised.

In 2013, the international community took on this challenge and by a large majority, voted in favour of adopting the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) at the UN General Assembly.

The ATT is the first international treaty that regulates the trade in conventional weapons. The purpose of the Treaty is to establish the highest international standards for arms trade and to prevent illicit trade in arms.

Finland has been working to promote the Treaty for over two decades, and last August, Ambassador Klaus Korhonen was unanimously elected  as the third President of the Arms Trade Treaty. Previously Finland has held one of the Vice Presidencies of the Treaty.

Rules for International Arms Trade: Why do we need them?

"The Arms Trade Treaty strives to ensure that the traded weapons are not used to carry out human rights violations or other violations of national or international law", Korhonen explains.

Almost all countries in the world already have a national system for controlling  trade in defence equipment. The challenge, however, is that practices differ and that there are always states that are willing to permit arms transfers which others would prohibit.

"Each state makes its own assessment of whether or not a certain arms transfer can be permitted. Factors influencing this decision include determining to whom and for what purpose the weapons are intended and how reliably this information can be verified”

Even today, alternative routes through transit countries make it possible to transfer arms to countries and end-users whose responsibility cannot be guaranteed.

Aiming for a Global Treaty

During his Presidency, Korhonen has visited three different continents and persuaded non-State Parties to accede the ATT as full members. The aim is at a universal treaty that would eventually include all countries in the world.

Regional organisations are in a key position in supporting the implemention of the Arms Trade Treaty. The African Union Peace and Security Council supports arms control as part of the Silencing the Guns by 2020 initiative. Photo: Jukka Pajarinen

Five new states have acceded during Finland's Presidency, bringing the total number of State Parties up to 92. This comprises almost half of all UN member states.

According to Korhonen, continued political dialogue and understanding of different national perspectives is key to successful Treaty universalization.

"Each state has its own unique situation, which puts a different slant on the challenges and benefits the Treaty brings them", he says.

"In fragile states, the Treaty’s stabilizing effect and the human development that follows are among its key benefits. Other states, on the other hand, have adopted the Treaty primarily as a tool for fighting terrorism or curbing organised crime”.

Under Finland’s Presidency, sustainable development has been selected as the key theme for Third Conference of States Parties. The most relevant goal for the Arms Trade Treaty is Sustainable Development Goal 16.4, dealing with  reducing illicit financial and arms flows and combating organized crime. 

The Consequences of Unregulated Arms Arade Affect All Countries in the World

Finland’s Presidency of the Arms Trade Treaty will end in September this year as the Third Conference of States Parties concludes. However, Korhonen stresses that continuous advocacy should not depend on holding an official position or role.

"In practice, the consequences of unregulated arms trade affect all countries in the world. It is vital that each state takes ownership of the Treaty and actively encourages its neighbours, trade partners, and other like-minded countries to accede."

The three largest arms exporters (United States, Russia and China) still remain outside the Treaty. Of these countries only the United States has signed the Treaty. Source: ATT Secretariat

Korhonen praises the support the political leadership in Finland have given to his Presidency, as well as the active involvement of Finnish stakeholders, including government authorities, researchers, NGOs, and industry representatives. Korhonen says that his team has received support from all departments of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and notes that a project like this is always a joint venture.

Finnish missions abroad have also played an important role, as universalization and maintaining international dialogue have been among of the priorities of the Finnish Presidency.  The missions have produced an extensive analysis of different states’ national plans for acceding to the ATT, and they also have to a great extent been responsible for arranging the Presidency’s  visits to different parts of the globe. “Showcasing the efficiency, expertise, and hospitality of the network of Finnish missions to our international partners has been great”, Korhonen says.

The legally binding text of the Treaty is an important instrument for regulating arms trade. Ultimately, however, the significance of the Arms Trade Treaty depends on the number of states willing to undertake the actual Treaty implemention.

The Third Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty will be held in Geneva on 11-15 September 2017. At this conference, a successor will be elected for Ambassador Korhonen. The Finnish delegation at the Conference will be led by Minister for Foreign Affairs Timo Soini.

Iida-Maria Tammi                                                                                                              The author works at the Ministry's Unit for Arms Control.

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