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Who is providing arms? – Assessing the effectiveness of the Arms Trade Treaty, Part 3

This section of the report will examine more closely which states are supplying the most arms and how ATT commitments may relate to this.[i] It is worth reiterating that the ATT does not seek to prevent arms transfers but to better regulate them. The ATT appears to firmly support what the Treaty terms the “legitimate interests of States in the trade in conventional arms”. What the Treaty does seek to do, is to prevent the transfer of arms when those arms are likely to be used to perpetrate war crimes, genocide and other grave violations of international law.

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The two biggest arms exporters between 2012 and 2021 are the USA and Russia, both of which are not party to the ATT. The United States was a signatory but considers itself as having ‘unsigned’ the Treaty, and therefore not bound to act in accordance with its aims and purpose. Of the top 25 arms exporters, who account for 99% of global arms exports between 2012 and 2021, 17 are party to the ATT; a further four are signatories.

Though the vast majority of these exporters are party to the ATT, Russia and the United States have been responsible for more than 55% of global arms exports in the last decade. This means that more than 55% of global arms transfers occur without necessarily the adherence to the ATT on the exporter’s side. This is not to say that there are no rules or regulations surrounding the transfer of these arms, but they occur without the obligation to adher to the standards and regulations set out as a global minimum within the ATT.

While the ATT does impose guidelines for importing states, using SIPRI’s data on Trend Indicator Value,[ii] ATT state parties accounted for under a third of the total TIV for imports between 2012-2021; signatories (including the United States) account for 16%, and those that are neither party to, nor signatories, account for 54% of the total TIV over the last decade.

The above means that, still, most arms transfers occur between states not party to the ATT. Though this does not mean that the ATT is without impact, with the number of state parties continuing to grow each year, including some key arms exporters and importers in recent years such as China, Canada, South Korea and Brazil. Since the ATT came into force there does appear to have been a decrease in global arms transfers. Comparing the average TIV value between 2012 to 2014 and between 2019 to 2021 there has been a decrease of 7%.[iii] Though of course, this may also have been influenced by the global COVID-19 pandemic and other factors. When looking at this comparison with individual states, 16 (or 55%) of the 26 ATT states who have exported arms in the last decade (2012-2021) have seen their arms transfers decrease. One saw no significant change and nine saw increases. Of the 14 states who are not party to the ATT and have conducted arms transfers in the last decade, the same comparison saw a recorded decrease in 6 (or 43%) states.

Though it should be borne in mind that this may not be indicative of ATT impact, as arms transfers are motivated by a range of factors. For example, some ATT states may see arms transfers increase as states prefer to conduct trade with them. While states who predict they might encounter barriers to trading in arms with ATT State Parties may seek transfers from states without such commitments. This is to say, that measuring ATT effectiveness is complicated and cannot be reduced to a few data points. It is also difficult to understand where arms transfers have been prevented – such absences of arms are not visible in the data.

The case studies in this section of two key arms exporters, China and the UK, seek to better understand the effectiveness of the ATT.

Case study summaries

China only recently acceded to the ATT, so provides an opportunity to look at recent changes to align their arms exports with their new ATT commitments. On the other hand, the UK was a key architect in developing and coordinating efforts to reach the ATT. However, it has also been highly criticised for some of its arms transfers since the ATT entered into force. It is hoped these case studies will shine a light on the ATT’s impacts as well as the challenges surrounding implementation and compliance. The case studies can be read in full at section 11.5 and 11.6.

China

As a major exporter of arms in the last decade, responsible for 4.6% of global arms exports between 2017 and 2021,[iv] and having recently acceded to the ATT, China provides an opportunity to understand the potential impact of the ATT on key arms exporters. Though it is acknowledged that it may be too soon to truly understand the impact.

Some of the key findings are below:

  • After acceding to the ATT in 2020, in 2021, China continued to transfer arms to countries of concern. These included transfers to Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
  • Of particular concern given their new ATT commitments and explosive weapon harm, were the transfers to Myanmar and Saudi Arabia.
  • However, at the time of writing, China has not supplied weapons to Russia since their invasion of Ukraine, which could indicate a positive impact.

Beyond arms transfers China has engaged at conferences and has tightened rules and procedures around their exports in line with their new international commitments.[v] Further, China’s accession to the ATT may encourage other states from Asia to join, a region with a low number of state parties – the Philippines and Afghanistan have since ratified the ATT.

It seems likely that their accession has not only had some impact on their arms transfers and related practices but also that their accession could have both positive and negative ramifications for the ATT’s progress more generally, as they will be a significant voice at the table.

The UK

The UK played a key role on the development of the ATT.[vi] However, they have since been inconsistent in their implementation, with transfers that likely violate their ATT commitments, such as their exports to Saudi Arabia, other coalition partners, and Israel, for example.

  • Between 2015 and 2021, the UK approved licences for military goods worth £9.5 billion to countries who have been part of the Saudi-led coalition in this period, from 2,780 limited-value licences – there are an additional 632 unlimited value licences.[vii] Those to Saudi Arabia account for the vast majority of this.
  • In 2014, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, which saw explosive weapon use by Israel cause more than 3,700 civilian casualties over the course of the conflict. The same year, the UK ratified the ATT but nevertheless approved 109 limited-value licences to Israel, valued at £12m, as well as 3 unlimited value licences.[viii]

The use of unlimited licences more generally by the UK has also been a significant barrier to transparency, with CAAT estimating that the majority of the UK’s arms exports were now covered by these ‘secret licences’.[ix]Since 2015, when the ATT was in force, the UK has approved more than 9,000 unlimited/open export licences for military goods.[x] These cover 230 destinations, including many countries of concern.

Exporter case study findings

These case studies demonstrate some of the key challenges for the ATT in terms of enforcement, with some of the biggest exporters that are Party to the ATT still supplying arms that appear to violate their commitments. The issue of transparency among these exporters is also a key concern, which will be explored further in the section below.

While, for the most part, arms from these states since they became Party to the ATT do not seem to violate their commitments, it is these exceptions that concern. While the ATT does seem to have led to some improvements for China, it appears that in the UK areas like transparency have steadily worsened. This demonstrates how the ATT’s effectiveness can be very dependent the implementation and ambition of the States that are Party to it.

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan National Army instructor prepares to load an artillery shell into a 122 milimeter howitzer D-30 Oct. 4, 2010. NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, Senior Airman Zachary Wolf.

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?


[i] See Appendix 10 a full nation-by-nation data.

[ii] See Appendix 11 for full TIV overview for exporting states. According to available data collected from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The TIV data covers the export and Trend Indicator Values for 78 states.

[iii] See Appendix 11 for full TIV overview for exporting states. According to available data collected from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

[iv] Wezeman, P.D., A. Kuimova and S. T. Wezeman, 2021. ‘Trends in International Arms Transfers’,

 SIPRI, March, 2022https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2022-03/fs_2203_at_2021.pdf (accessed 07 Jan 2023)

[v] China’s Export Controls, The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, December 2021, https://english.www.gov.cn/archive/whitepaper/202112/29/content_WS61cc01b8c6d09c94e48a2df0.html (accessed 07 Jan 2023)

[vi] Duncan, J. ‘The UK’s role in the UN Arms Trade Treaty’, Civil Service Quarterly, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, https://quarterly.blog.gov.uk/2013/07/12/the-uks-role-in-the-un-arms-trade-treaty-2/ (accessed 07 Jan 2023)

[vii] Data collected from Campaign Against the Arms Trade, ‘UK Export Licence Data’. All data: https://caat.org.uk/data/exports-uk/. Specific data link: https://caat.org.uk/data/exports-uk/overview?region=United+Arab+Emirates,Sudan,Bahrain,Qatar,Kuwait,Egypt,Jordan,Morocco,Saudi+Arabia&date_from=2015&date_to=2021 (accessed 07 Jan 2023)

[viii] Data collected from Campaign Against the Arms Trade, ‘UK Export Licence Data’. All data: https://caat.org.uk/data/exports-uk/. Specific data link:  https://caat.org.uk/data/exports-uk/licence-list?region=Israel&date_from=2014&date_to=2014 (accessed 07 Jan 2023)

[ix] CAAT, 2021. ‘OPEN? The UK’S secret arms sales’,  https://caat.org.uk/app/uploads/2021/07/CAAT-Report-v2.2.pdf (accessed 07 Jan 2023)[x] Data collected from Campaign Against the Arms Trade, ‘UK Export Licence Data’. All data: https://caat.org.uk/data/exports-uk/. Specific data link:  https://caat.org.uk/data/exports-uk/destination?date_from=2015&limit=unlimited (accessed 07 Jan 2023)