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Why the World Needs an Arms Trade Treaty

Why the World Needs an Arms Trade Treaty
Last week, Victor Bout, the infamous Russian arms dealer, was convicted by a New York grand jury on four counts of conspiracy to sell weapons to Colombian rebels. But, that is just the tip of the iceberg for this so called “merchant of death.”

A former member of the Soviet Military and Intelligence Services, Bout has been involved in some way, shape or form in every major conflict since the end of the Cold War. He has sold arms to governments and rebels responsible for heinous atrocities and human rights abuses across Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Latin America.

After twenty years of supplying weapons to predatory leaders like Liberia’s Charles Taylor, why did U.S. federal prosecutors focus their case on such a narrow set of charges? It likely came down to jurisdictional issues. National laws govern the export and import of weapons. A clear, binding international treaty regulating weapons transfers, and specifically precluding the transfer of lethal weapons to autocrats and terrorist groups, simply does not exist.

In a recent op – ed, Oxfam’s senior policy advisor Scott Stedjan (also a friend and colleague) explains the situation well:

“Bout, whose renowned ability to deliver weapons and goods to almost any region of the world earned him the nickname ‘merchant of death,’ has long maintained that his transportation services – though reprehensible – are not illegal. For some of his activities, he may be right.

As of last year, only 47 percent of the world’s governments have reported that they have basic controls on the import of small arms and light weapons, such as AK-47s and shoulder-fired missiles. Only 52 governments have any form of controls on arms dealers operating in their countries, and of that, less than half have criminal or monetary penalties associated with illegal gun running.

The consequences of these kinds of legal vacuums can be deadly. Because arms dealers can relatively easily exploit weak national control systems, arms continue to flow to perpetrators of mass atrocities, enabling widespread violence against civilians and sustaining conflicts much longer than they would normally run. In 2004, the Department of Treasury barred Bout from doing business with U.S. citizens and companies because of his association with former Liberian President Charles Taylor.”

Oxfam, which recently published “Beyond Viktor Bout: Why the United States Needs an Arms Trade Treaty,” helps lead a coalition of organizations advocating for a robust arms trade treaty, which would require states to adopt national laws to control the import and export of weapons. Organizations calling for an arms trade treaty are absolutely right that a clear and enforceable international treaty regulating arms transfers does not exist.

However, international human rights and humanitarian conventions, which are considered customary international law, do impose obligations, which could be construed to prohibit weapons transfers to predatory or abusive regimes and non – state actors already. For instance, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Geneva Conventions both require states parties “to respect and ensure respect” for these respective treaties.

While these provisions do not explicitly preclude selling or transferring weapons to abusive regimes or non – state actors, a reasonable court could conclude that a state party engaging in weapons transfers to a foreign terrorist group or predatory militia would be in violation of its obligation “to respect and ensure respect” for basic human rights and humanitarian norms.

Albeit more complex, this is certainly a plausible argument. Indeed, while an international treaty precluding weapons transfers to actors that flagrantly abuse basic human rights and humanitarian norms does not exist, customary international law may already prohibit such irresponsible behavior. Of course, a clear and robust arms trade treaty would eliminate any ambiguity and help stop those who wish to make a profit by fueling armed conflict.



Trevor Keck

Trevor Keck is currently a fellow with the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) based in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he is researching civilian casualty issues, and advocating for policies that will better protect civilians from the conflict in Afghanistan. Trevor holds a graduate degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, at Tufts University, where he concentrated in international security and public international law, and BA in peace and conflict studies from Chapman University. Trevor's writings on this blog may or may not reflect the views of CIVIC.

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