Forget the lofty preamble and the pious phrasing, the real meaning of the Arms Trade Treaty which the United Nations General Assembly approved overwhelmingly last week is best demonstrated by the imbalance in the exporter-importer relationship and the carve-outs that the world’s biggest sellers of weapons have written in for themselves. The heart of the treaty is Article 6, which prohibits the export of arms if the supplier has knowledge that these would be used for war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, grave violations of the 1949 Geneva Conventions or attacks directed against civilians. But this prohibition will not apply to the sale of arms that are used for terrorism. Nor will it apply to those arms transfers that are provided by one country to another in the form of a loan or gift. Moreover, the export of weapons to non-state actors like militias is also excluded from the purview of the ATT, thus allowing arms sales to be used to destabilise sovereign states. India’s abstention on the vote along with several other countries, including Russia and China, serves to underscore the inherently arbitrary scope of the treaty’s provisions.

The treaty has its origins in the desire of western arms exporters to ensure a level-playing field for themselves in a world in which others might come forward to sell weaponry whenever European and American players are unable or unwilling to do so for either legal or political reasons. The ATT also aims to privilege the interests of arms exporters vis-à-vis importing nations. Article 26 stipulates that the treaty “shall not be cited as grounds for voiding defence cooperation agreements concluded between States Parties to this Treaty” — a reference presumably to agreements between Nato countries or between the United States and Israel — but shockingly does not grant the same protection to defence contracts. In any arms purchase agreement, the exporter has the right to terminate supplies but the importing country is also free to invoke punitive consequences as provided for under contract. That is why India insisted during the negotiations that suppliers be barred from evading those consequences by using the ATT to terminate arms exports to an importing state. But at the last minute, a group of key western states rejected India’s proposal. The fate of this provision underscores the problematic way in which the ATT was negotiated with a small group of countries — mostly arms exporters or their allies — monopolising the drafting. In negotiating future weapon purchases, India must obtain legal assurances from exporting nations that ensure the predictability of supply. Countries unwilling to provide these guarantees must be kept out of the Indian market.

This article has been corrected for a typographical error

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