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Assessing the effectiveness of the Arms Trade Treaty ​​on reducing civilian harm from conventional explosive weapons in populated areas

In the last decade, Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) recorded 181,619 casualties caused by manufactured explosive weapons worldwide, with 122,154 of those being civilians killed or injured. The impact of these weapons extends far beyond these numbers, causing immeasurable human suffering. The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) aims to prevent this suffering through regulating arms trade, but its effectiveness remains uncertain.

As of November 2022, there are 111 states parties to the treaty, with 30 additional signatories who have not yet ratified, and more in the process of acceding. However, some key exporters and importers of explosive weapons have not yet joined the treaty. Despite this, the treaty has impacted weapons transfers and peace and stability, but to what extent is not yet clear.

This report aims to holistically assess the ATT’s influence on harm from explosive weapons by examining civilian harm, explosive weapon transfers, and other key areas covered by the ATT. Using the civilian harm indicators from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas released by UNIDIR in 2021, AOAV will study four case studies focusing on civilian harm, and two case studies on key exporting countries. Following the case study findings, the report will examine the impact of the ATT on explosive weapon harm and identify areas where challenges persist, as informed by expert interviews and research. The full methodology can be found in section 10 of the report.

The goal of this report is to provide insight into the ways the ATT has benefited civilians and the challenges that remain in effectively reducing human suffering.  We hope it goes in some way to achieving that goal.

The full report is available to download here. This report was generously funded by a grant from UNSCAR: UN Trust Facility Supporting Cooperation on Arms Regulation.

Campaigners outside the UN calling upon delegates to the third Conference of States Parties on the Arms Trade Treaty in Geneva to immediately stop arms transfers that violate the Treaty and kill and injure thousands of people around the world. CSP 2017, Campaign Action 11th September 2017. Ralf Schlesener, Control Arms.

Executive Summary

The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) has the potential to significantly reduce civilian suffering from explosive weapons in populated areas, but its effectiveness is limited by state parties’ violations of the treaty. Transparency remains a concern, and there is a disconnect between state commitments and actions, particularly in regards to major importers. Nonetheless, the ATT has had a positive impact on export controls, diversion, and capacity-building efforts in states with poor control systems. These measures are likely to influence non-state actors’ use of manufactured explosive weapons and reduce the availability of materials for IEDs. Funding mechanisms within the ATT have also helped developing states address some fundamental concerns.

Overall, this report finds that, while progress has been made, more improvements can be achieved through better implementation and universalization. The ATT is still in its early years, but sustained momentum can lead to further progress in reducing human suffering.

Despite the Taliban’s assurances, residents are concerned since there is no government Afghanistan, 17 August 2021, Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nAg7egiXClU. Voice of America News.

Key findings

  • Our findings show that nations that were not party or signatory to the ATT were over three times more likely to harm civilians using explosive weapons than states that had ratified the treaty.
  • On average, nations that were not party or signatory to the ATT caused 9,000% more civilian casualties from explosive weapons over an 8-year period compared to states that had ratified the treaty.
  • Out of the nations that had ratified the treaty, nine out of ten caused zero civilian casualties over the period examined.
  • Between 2012 and 2018, the 111 states parties to the ATT were responsible for 964 civilian casualties from explosive weapons, while those 58 states that have not signed have been responsible for 47,728 civilian casualties, a direct difference of 4,850%.
  • 95% of ATT states parties have publicly acknowledged the harm caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, compared to 64% of states that have not signed up.
  • 12 states that have ratified the ATT have caused civilian casualties from manufactured explosive weapon use since the Treaty entered into force.
  • Russia and the United States, responsible for more than 55% of global arms exports in the last decade, have not ratified the treaty.
  • Some ATT states parties continue to supply explosive weapons that appear to be a violation of the Treaty, including to states responsible for high levels of civilian casualties from explosive weapon use. These exporting states include the UK, France, China, Serbia and Bulgaria, among others.
  • Since the ATT came into force, there has been a 7% decrease in global arms transfers, though the reasons for this decrease are not clear.
  • In the three years before the ATT came into effect, there were 32,854 global civilian casualties from explosive weapons. Over three years post-ATT (2019 – 2021) there were 23,297, a 29% decrease, which may be influenced by many factors (and 2022 showed a steep rise owing to Ukraine and Russia’s invasion.  Russia is not a signatory to the ATT).

Navigate the report:

Assessing the effectiveness of the Arms Trade Treaty – Executive Summary

Part 1: Nation-by-nation review analysis

Part 2: Who is causing the most harm?

Part 3: Who is providing arms?

Part 4: Thematic examination

Part 5: Conclusion

Part 6: Recommendations 

Part 7: Case studies – Myanmar’s military

Part 8: Case studies – Saudi Arabia in Yemen

Part 9: Case studies – Non-state armed groups in the Philippines

Part 10: Case studies – the Taliban

Part 11: Case studies – China before and after ATT accession

Part 12: Case studies – the United Kingdom, from key ATT architect to key violator?