Working Towards a Globalised Arms Trade Treaty

The challenges identified in South and Southeast Asian countries in relation to ATT accession or ratification are predominantly issues at the ‘system level’, rather than specific capability or capacity gaps. Solving them requires a process-oriented approach, which has to be contextualised at the national level to ensure validity and sustainability.

Small arms and rocket-propelled grenades found by Marines from Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment in a house in Fallujah

Small arms and rocket-propelled grenades

Photo by USMC Lance Cpl. Will Lathrop/public domain


Illegal and irresponsible transfers of weapons have a significant impact on regional and national security, contribute to violence and human rights abuses and undermine development by discouraging investments and jeopardising international assistance.

To prevent and eradicate the illicit trade in conventional arms and prevent their diversion, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) on 2 April 2013. The ATT is the first legally binding treaty regulating the international trade in conventional weapons — from small arms to battle tanks, combat aircraft and warships. It entered into force on 24 December 2014 and currently counts 82 State Parties.


Despite the noble purpose and the already substantial adhesion, many UN Member States are still debating if, how and when to join the ATT. To improve the understanding of the concerns and challenges experienced by member states not part of the ATT, RAND Europe conducted a research project sponsored by the United Nations Trust Facility Supporting Cooperation on Arms Regulation (UNSCAR) focusing on South and South-East Asia.


The project focused on ten Asian member states chosen from among those who have not signed the Treaty or have signed but not ratified it. The project focused in particular on seven member states from South-East Asia (Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Republic of the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam) complemented by a small selection of member states from South- and East- Asia (India, Sri Lanka and Republic of Korea) acting as a control group.

The project team employed a mix-methodology approach which included a document review and engagement with stakeholders through the participation in two regional workshops (Bangkok in April 2016 and Dhaka in May 2016) as well as through individual interviews with seven officials from targeted member states.


The project team found that there are number of challenges facing the ratification/accession and implementation of the ATT:

  • National political landscapes: In some cases the ATT agenda is supported at the civil service level, but lacks traction or drive in the political arena where factors such as general elections or other strategic considerations tend to generate conflicting priorities among political leaders and governmental agencies/ministries.
  • Regional security: In some cases, unstable regional security influences a country’s willingness to join a treaty that has the potential to limit its ability to transfer arms.
  • National legislation: Countries are particularly conscious of the legally binding nature of the ATT and do not seem willing to proceed with ratification/accession until its text is fully analysed against the national legislation.
  • Limited access to qualified human resources: The limited availability of prepared and qualified staff challenges the ability of a country to build and maintain momentum during the ratification/accession process, but poses a more direct challenge to implementation.
  • Limited inter-agency cooperation: This problem results from a combination of multiple factors including a lack of established formal guidelines for cooperation, a lack of adequate formal and informal networks among key stakeholders across government and in other sectors (e.g. industry), and a lack of adequate infrastructure to facilitate information sharing and exchange.
  • Attitudes towards transparency and corruption: Issues related to transparency and corruption are difficult to measure, assess and, consequently, address. In any case, such issues may pose challenges in the ATT implementation (for example, in the form of incomplete or inaccurate reporting), but may also covertly undermine the progress of national ratification/accession.


At the national level, the project team recommended:

  • The identification and appointment of ‘ATT national champions’ (either an agency or a senior figure in the civil service), which could act as a catalyst for the ATT process at the national level.
  • Conducting a full audit of national capabilities and regulations (either internally or with the support of external actors) to identify specific areas requiring further development for which assistance could be requested.
  • Leveraging engagement in regional and international fora dedicated to promoting and advancing ATT universalisation to draw on other member states’ experiences and disseminate lessons learned.

On the international/regional level, the project team recommended:

  • Building on current platforms and fora, or creating new ones, to extend dialogue, sharing of information and best practices and confidence building beyond the realm of MODs or Ministries for Foreign Affairs and reach out to a wider community.
  • Planning and conducting national-level engagements to support the ATT process in a manner that is better synchronised with political cycles to ensure that the Treaty remains on the agenda of national governments.
  • Providing assistance to member states by means of both basic and specialist training and capacity building to support both individual upskill and organisational learning.