Arms Trade Treaty: Trump’s decision to remove the US

President Trump has announced the US will not ratify the Arms Trade Treaty. The treaty regulates the international trade in conventional weapons and aims to prevent or eradicate the illicit arms trade. The UK and French Governments say they ‘regret’ the US decision and remain committed to the treaty. This is the second arms control treaty the US has stepped back from this year. Here, we look at what the Arms Trade Treaty is and what the US decision means.

President Trump’s announcement

On 26 April 2019 President Trump announced the US will withdraw its signature from the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

The US signed the treaty in 2013 but it has not been ratified by the Senate. President Trump has asked the Senate to return the treaty, arguing that by doing so he is protecting US’s interests, defending US sovereignty and standing up for its constitutional rights (in particular the Second Amendment – the right to bear arms). The White House also argued the treaty does not prevent “irresponsible arms transfers” and does not include major arms exports like Russia and China.

The Obama administration previously argued the treaty is consistent with the Second Amendment and would encourage other states to bring their standards up to America’s.

What is the Arms Trade Treaty?

The Arms Trade Treaty website describes it as:

The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is an international treaty that regulates the international trade in conventional arms and seeks to prevent and eradicate illicit trade and diversion of conventional arms by establishing international standards governing arms transfers

The ATT is a ‘normative treaty’ in that it seeks to promote appropriate government regulation of cross-border trade of conventional weapons; it does not establish a system of international enforcement, monitoring or verification (unlike other arms control treaties). States parties are responsible for their own national implementation efforts.

What are conventional weapons?

The treaty applies to the trade in battle tanks, armoured vehicles, large-calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and missile launchers, and small arms and light weapons. These are listed in Article 2 of the treaty and include all seven major categories of conventional weapons identified in the 1991 UN Register of Conventional Arms, with the addition of small arms and light weapons.

Why does Trump’s decision matter?

The US withdrawal of its signature does not change the fact the ATT remains in force.

However, part of the treaty’s aim is to encourage nations to introduce or strengthen their own regulatory framework for the arms trade. A former lead US negotiator on the treaty said the announcement signals the President “opposes efforts to require other countries to meet the high standards of U.S. military export decisions.”

That this is the second international arms control treaty the US has stepped back from this year deepens concerns about the US’s commitment to the arms control system and prospects for US-Russian nuclear arms control negotiations.

Both the UK and French Governments expressed regret over the US decision and reaffirmed their commitment to the treaty. Latvia, in its capacity as President of this year’s Conference on the ATT, described the withdrawal as an, “unfortunate development” and urged the US to reconsider. The European Union also issued a statement strongly supporting the treaty.

David Miliband, a former Foreign Secretary, described Trump’s announcement as “dangerous” while Alistair Burt, who as a Minister signed the treaty in 2013, said while it was not perfect, “we should guard it well”.  Emily Thornberry, Shadow Foreign Secretary, responding to the announcement, described the President as a “threat to our world order.”

Others in the US support Trump’s decision. The National Rifle Association, where Trump made his announcement, said it demonstrated Trump’s “commitment to our Second Amendment freedoms and American Sovereignty.” Theodore Bromund of the Heritage Foundation has previously argued at length why the US should withdraw its signature: highlighting the fact major arms exporters like Russia and China are not signatories.

How many countries have ratified the treaty?

101 states have ratified or acceded to the treaty and it has entered into force for 100 countries. 130 states (including the US) have signed the treaty. A full list of states, including those who have not signed, is available on the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs website.

The Treaty was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 2 April 2013. Only Iran, North Korea and Syria voted against the treaty. A further 23 states abstained, including Russia and China. The treaty entered into force on 24 December 2014.

The UK Government signed the treaty on 3 June 2013 and laid it before Parliament on 15 July 2013 (Command paper 8680 and explanatory memorandum). The UK ratified the treaty on 2 April 2014.

What does the ATT do?

The ATT places certain obligations on States Parties (countries which have ratified the treaty). Amongst other things, States Parties are required to:

  • Establish and maintain a national export control system. This should include a list of items subject to export control, the responsible national authorities, the criteria for granting or refusing export licenses and enforcement measures in case of export offences (Article 5).
  • Deny the transfer of arms if doing so would break an arms embargo or if the exporting state knows the weapons will be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or acts of terrorism (Article 6).
  • Submit an initial report within a year of the entry-into-force of measures undertaken to implement the ATT and annual reports on exports and imports (Article 13).

Amending the treaty?

The Treaty can be amended in 2020 as this will be six years after it came into force (Article 20). The Trump administration said, “there are potential proposals that the US cannot support.” It did not elaborate.

What do MPs think of the treaty?

The previous Labour and Coalition Governments actively supported the adoption of the treaty. The UK Government has repeatedly affirmed its support for it.

MPs have described as ‘inexcusable’ the UK Government’s refusal to submit annual reports on the imports of arms. The Committees on Arms Export Controls said this is a “clear violation of its treaty obligations in this regard.” The Government argued most of the items which must be reported under the ATT are not subject to import controls and it does not have a mechanism to collect comprehensive data on imports. It has since said that while the treaty encourages states to record imports it does not create an obligation to do so.

The Committee also heard different views over whether there should be a ‘presumption of denial’ in respect of open licenses for export to countries that have not signed the ATT.

Further reading and resources

Commons Library briefing paper explains the procedural lead-up to the adoption of ‘The Arms Trade Treaty’ while ‘An introduction to UK arms exports’ explains what arms exports are, what controls are in place and the process for granting licenses.

The Committees on Arms Export Controls is currently taking evidence for its inquiry on arms exports in 2017. The Defence Committee is examining the possible implications for the UK of the INF treaty suspension while the Lords International Relations Committee published a report on rising nuclear risk and nuclear disarmament in April 2019.

The Arms Trade Treaty website provides further resources, including on the annual Conference of States Parties to the ATT – the fifth conference will take place in late August 2019.

The UN Office for Disarmament Affair contains lots of information on the Arms Trade Treaty including reasons to join the ATT, an overview of obligations and reporting requirements.

The Arms Control Association provides a guide to the Treaty (January 2016) and a wealth of material on arms control more widely. The Arms Trade Treaty Baseline Assessment Project maintains a database of national implementation efforts including this UK profile. Small Arms Survey provides research on the proliferation of small arms and light weapons and their impacts.


About the author: Louisa Brooke-Holland is a Senior Library Clerk in the House of Commons Library, specialising in international affairs and defence.

Image: Donald Trump, August 2016 by Gage Skidmore / licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 / image cropped