Disarming the Lords of War

A New International Treaty to Regulate the Arms Trade

A woman and child try to avoid shelling on the opposite side of the building, 2007. Control Arms / Flickr

To understand how poorly the global arms trade is regulated, consider this: For a $70 billion industry that produces seven to eight million firearms annually, it loses one million weapons every year to arms traders like the notorious Viktor Bout (a.k.a. the Merchant of Death) who sold weapons to warlords and terrorists from the 1990s until his capture in 2008. Since then, the international community has sought to build a treaty to control the trade of conventional arms.

The United Nations’ Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which comes into force on Christmas Eve this year, will deal a major blow to illegal arms dealers that supply the weapons for a large portion of the world’s conflicts. Its principle is straightforward: prohibit the sale of weapons to individuals, groups, or countries that commit genocide, break human rights and international humanitarian laws, or abet terrorists. The treaty will plug holes in the weapons-export process by requiring nations to monitor all aspects of production—from sourcing to manufacturing and export—and will apply to a wide range of weapons, including Kalashnikovs, rifles, mortars, grenades, and shoulder surface-to-air missiles, even tanks and battleships. When fully implemented, the ATT will make a crisis such as the one in Syria less likely; weapon transfers between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad will be considered illegitimate and shameful, even in the absence of a sanction or embargo.


Since the movement to create an arms treaty gained momentum a decade ago, some nations that sell arms to those that flaunt humanitarian laws and commit atrocities have already been singled out and shamed. Today, the treaty is nearly unanimously supported and positioned to become an international norm: Members of the UN General Assembly voted 154 to 3 to approve the treaty (only Iran, North Korean, and Syria objected) and 130 countries signed it in 2013. Over a year later, 60 countries have ratified the ATT and will incorporate it into their domestic laws. (For the treaty to become effective,

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