Arms Trade Treaty: Why India abstained

Arms Trade Treaty, originally conceived to control illicit arms trade, has been hijacked and converted into an instrument of coercion favouring a few arms exporting countries in the West.

The world’s largest arms exporter controlling almost 30 percent of the arms trade voted for adopting the treaty with the knowledge that its Congress was not going to ratify it and the world’s  largest importer of arms- India, abstained . The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) was approved by 153 votes in its favour and 3 against. 23 nations, including Russia, China and India abstained and a few others were absent.


The ATT was initially conceived in 2001 to “prevent, combat and eradicate” illicit arms trade that had grown alarmingly. The treaty was conceptualised in 2003 and the UN took up the matter in 2006 by Resolution 61/89. India abstained and the US voted against the resolution. A group of governmental experts (from 28 countries) was formed in 2007 to consolidate and submit a report on the views expressed by the member states. The report was submitted in 2009. An Open Ended Working Group met in 2009 to debate the issue over six sessions. The exercise was cut short after two sessions since the US indicated a change in policy to support the treaty. A conference on the ATT was called for in 2012 and on April 2 the Treaty was adopted.

There has been much criticism of India’s abstention in sections of international but India has certain valid objections to the Treaty in the present form.

The first stems from the manner in which the objective for controlling illicit arms trade was distorted by Resolution 61/89, which introduced a vague resolve to examine the feasibility, scope and draft parameters for a legally binding instrument establishing international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms. The enlargement of the original objective to include legal arms trade between nations was predicated by the view that developing economies were the main source of illicit arms trade due to their weak legal framework, loss, corruption, diversion and theft. It also implied that control of the trade could and should be left to the developed arms exporting countries. The change in wording ensured that all arms importing countries irrespective of their need would have to follow the same standards. Thus, countries like Congo and Sudan, which imported arms to decimate their own people would be equated with countries like India and Vietnam, which import arms to protect their sovereignty. The resolution ensured that the primary objective namely control of elicit arm sale was swept under the carpet.

The second objection rises from Article 6, which prohibits states from exporting arms if it violates any Security Council resolution. In other words the Security Council will have the final word on whether a sovereign exporting state can or cannot enter into an Arms trade with another sovereign country. This is a direct infringement of Article 51 of the UN Charter that gives states the inherent right to individual and collective defencive action.

While exporting, states are barred against sending arms if they have prior knowledge of its usage against civilian targets. But the treaty is silent on the use of the arms by the exporting state on behalf of the importing state to target civilian targets. The American use of drones in Pakistan would fall under this category.

The third objection to the treaty rises from Article 7, which directs the exporting state to demand, receive, and evaluate the reasons for the importing states’ requirements. In other words it is the exporting state that will decide whether the importing state can or should buy arms, and lay conditions of the circumstances under which the arms can be used. A country like India, which imports 70 percent of its arms, will be at the mercy of the exporting states.

The fourth objection rises from Article 8, which permits exporting states to demand end use or end user documentation. This particular clause is a backdoor attempt to arm twist India into signing end user documents, which at present it is resisting.

The fifth objection rises from Article 11, which deals with diversion of conventional arms where it allows an exporting state to take appropriate measures in case it detects a diversion of arms. The section does not compel the exporting state to take responsibility for the diversion. We have seen in the past where the Non Proliferation Treaty was violated by every exporting signatory and where, even when evidence was forthcoming, such violations were overlooked for political reasons.

Diversion has not been defined. If there is an insurgency in the country and the army has to be called in, then will use of arms procured for external security to quell the insurgency be labeled as diversion? There is no clear way forward.

The sixth objection arises from the need to maintain a detailed register of the material being exported including the make, model, quantity, value etc. and details of the end user. This clause sees vehement opposition from the National Rifle Association of the USA, which will not countenance any form of gun registration and deems such registration as violation of the Second Amendment. They have vowed to see that the treaty is not ratified by the US Congress, and this by itself will render the treaty a non- starter.

Finally, the Treaty does not cover any sale to non-state actors. Sale of weapons used for sports and the conversion of conventional weapons to use biological, chemical or nuclear munitions. The treaty also does not cover arms, which have been abandoned by a state during or after an operation.

The sad part of the story is that an Arms Treaty, originally conceived to control illicit arms trade, has been hijacked and converted into an instrument of coercion favouring a few developed arms exporting countries in the West. India did well to abstain from the Treaty and should continue to do so.

Photo: Norway UN