The Foreign Office announced late yesterday that the UK has ratified the Arms Trade Treaty.

The Treaty provides, for the first time, an international legal and regulatory framework for the arms trade which respects international humanitarian law and human rights. 17 other states also ratified the treaty on 2 April, which means that 31 states have now done so. 50 ratifications are required for it to enter into force.

The previous Labour Government came out in favour of the idea in 2003. Successive UK governments subsequently played a major part in the prolonged negotiations that led to the adoption of a final treaty text by the UN General Assembly in April 2013. The current government signed the treaty in June 2013, triggering a ratification process that has taken ten months.

What has UK ratification involved?

Under part 2 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 the government must lay most treaties subject to ratification before Parliament for 21 sitting days before it can ratify them. If either House objects, the government must give reasons why it wants to ratify before it can proceed. The Commons can potentially block ratification indefinitely. However, there is no statutory requirement for a debate or vote, and Parliament cannot amend treaties.

The Arms Trade Treaty was laid before Parliament on 15 July 2013. 21 sitting days passed without objection. No debate or vote took place.

A further hurdle that needed to be overcome was securing the authorisation of the Council of the EU (note: this is not the European Council; this is how the Council of Ministers is now described) that member states could ratify the Treaty. This took place on 5 February 2014. The Council of the EU authorised EU member states to ratify the treaty on 3 March 2014.

The UK government determined that while primary legislation was not needed, secondary legislation required amendment to bring controls on the brokering of conventional arms when carried out by UK persons located overseas (i.e. ‘extra-territorial’ brokering controls) fully into line with the scope of the treaty.  This was done under the Export Control (Amendment) Order 2014, which was made on 18 March 2014, laid before Parliament on 19 March and which comes into force on 9 April 2014.

The government also said that the ‘Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria’ might require amendment in the light of the treaty. These Criteria are the basis upon which official decisions are made about whether to approve licence applications by UK-based companies and persons to export arms abroad.The operation of these Criteria have been subject to considerable criticism in the past, including by the Committees on Arms Export Control over arms exports approved to Middle Eastern and North African governments caught up in the ‘Arab Spring’. The Criteria have also been due for review to ensure that they are fully consistent with the wording of EU law.

The government published the updated Consolidated Criteria on 25 March 2014. It takes the position that the amended version does not amount to a change in policy.

What is the significance of the Arms Trade Treaty?

The jury is still out. Russia and China, two of the world’s major arms exporting countries abstained in the vote at the UN General Assembly in April 2013 and have not yet signed the treaty. Another, the US, voted in favour and has signed the treaty – but there are doubts about whether the Senate will ever agree to ratify it. The treaty will certainly enter into force sooner rather than later, but considerable work remains to be done to bring the bulk of the international arms trade within the ambit of the treaty.

Supporters of the treaty, which include a large number of international NGOs, argue that the treaty is an important step forward. Critics range from those who worry that the treaty is not strong enough, to others who believe that the arms trade should simply be abolished.

Where can I find out more?

UN Office for Disarmament Affairs; Control Arms Coalition; Amnesty International

Jon Lunn