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Reaction to US signing of historic arms trade treaty

On September 25th, a high-level meeting was held at the United Nations in New York to mark the signing by several countries, including the United States, of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) – a historic, multilateral document that establishes common standards for the international trade of weapons.

Every year, because of the widespread availability and misuse of weapons, hundreds of thousands of civilians are displaced, injured, raped or killed. The ATT will help alleviate this needless suffering by requiring that States deny transfers when they are aware, or where there is an overriding risk, that those weapons will be used to commit certain international crimes such as genocide or war crimes.

Welcome development

In addition to the US, Angola, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Ghana, Honduras, the Philippines, and South Africa were among the almost two dozen countries who signed up to the ATT this week, bringing the total number of signatory nations to 107. So far, six have ratified it.

"These numbers show that more than half of the world's countries have endorsed the treaty's objective of reducing human suffering through strict controls on the international trade in conventional arms," the president of the ICRC, Peter Maurer, told participants at a special event following the signing ceremony.

"States have recognized that the poorly regulated transfer of weapons can have devastating consequences on civilians and that we can no longer regard arms and ammunition as just another form of commercial goods," he said. 

Important focus on IHL

As the guardian of the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law (IHL), the ICRC is particularly pleased by these developments because the treaty explicitly recognizes each State's duty under the Conventions to ensure respect for IHL.

"The US and all others who signed this week set a positive example for those governments that have yet to do so," says Nathalie Weizmann, the ICRC's legal advisor on arms availability.

"We have moved much closer to reducing the human cost of the widespread and poorly regulated availability of conventional arms," she told Intercross.

The US perspective

In his signing speech, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, called the treaty "a significant step towards making the world a safer place," adding that it helped lift other countries up to the highest standards.

"This is about keeping weapons out of the hands of terrorists and rogue actors," Secretary Kerry said. "This is about reducing the risk of international transfers of conventional arms that will be used to carry out the world’s worst crimes. This is about keeping Americans safe and keeping America strong. This is about promoting international peace and global security. And this is about advancing important humanitarian goals…This treaty will not diminish anyone’s freedom."

Reacting to the news via Oxfam International's web site, the group's senior policy advisor for humanitarian response, Scott Stedjan, described the ATT as a "common sense agreement that will have a positive impact on civilians living in the midst of armed conflict or unstable environments, poverty alleviation, and US security."

"By signing the Treaty, the Obama Administration took an important step toward a more secure world," he added, while encouraging the US Senate to "do its part and support this life-saving Treaty" by moving towards ratification.

Allison Pytlak, the campaign manager for the Control Arms Coalition, agreed.

"Today is a tremendous milestone," she said in a statement. "It is important now for the United States and all countries that have signed on the ATT to start implementing the treaty as soon as possible."

Turning words into action

Indeed, the next challenge will be to get those nations that have signed the ATT to take their obligations seriously by incorporating it into domestic legislation and ratifying it. The treaty can only enter into force once 50 countries have ratified it.

On Thursday, September 26th, the ICRC's Vice President, Christine Beerli, will address a high-level meeting of the UN Security Council on the impact of the illicit transfer, destabilizing accumulation, and misuse of small arms and light weapons on international peace and security.

In June, when the treaty was first opened to signatures, she made a compelling case at the UN headquarters in New York, when she called on all States to join the ATT and further its humanitarian purpose.

On Thursday, she is expected to continue to highlight the fact that States must do more than sign such global norms, they must also comply and put them into practice. She is also expected to underscore the ICRC's willingness and capacity to provide technical advice to States in doing so.

By Anna Nelson, ICRC Spokesperson for North America and Intercross Editor

Additional resources:

Find a wealth of ICRC materials on arms availability here

This video explains what the ATT is about and why it is an important part of efforts to safeguard the lives, health, and well-being of millions of people around the world.

Oxfam's Scott Stedjan makes a case for continued US support for the ATT

US State Deptartment Fact Sheet on the Arms Trade Treaty

Track who has signed and ratified the ATT here

ICRC Interview with Nathalie Weizman: Why the ATT is essential

How the ICRC and American Red Cross engage with the UN in New York

Watch John Kerry sign the treaty