It’s been three years since the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Arms Trade Treaty, an agreement that aims to regulate the international trade of conventional weapons in order to curb the illicit trade of arms and ammunition.
The international arms trade is estimated to be nearly an $80 billion industry worldwide, and as conflicts wage around the world, our student fellow Taylor Stevens sat down with international arms trade expert Rachel Stohl to shed light on the shadowy industry of illicit arms, the progress of the ATT, and how the arms trade can reveal trends for conflicts still waging in the Middle East.
Rachel served as a U.N. consultant to the treaty process from 2008 to 2013 and created the Arms Trade Treaty-Baseline Assessment Project to monitor the treaty’s progress. She is a senior associate with the Stimson Center’s Managing Across Boundaries Initiative and has spent her career working on issues related to the arms trade, particularly how poorly regulated or irresponsible arms transfers impact civilians and children.
FPI: How would you explain your job to a third grader?
I research, write, and talk about issues related to the international trade in weapons and what that means for people’s safety, security, and development around the world.
FPI: Can you talk more about the international arms trade?
The international arms trade affects every country in the world. Every country is involved in importing, exporting, or serving as a transit or transshipment point for weapons, so the scope of the issue impacts everybody—even if they as a government don’t consider themselves to be a major player in the arms trade.
There are very specific countries that are the largest exporters of weapons, and they coincide with the permanent five members of the Security Council plus other major players in the economy and the world: the U.S., Russia, China, France, the U.K., Germany, for example. We also know that there are countries that are routinely the largest importers of weapons; that would be countries in the Middle East like Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., India, Pakistan, and also China and the United States. Many countries are not only exporters of weapons but are major importers, as well.
Globally, you’re talking about nearly an $80 billion trade. That’s relatively little when you think about the trade in, say, oil, gas, or food; it’s proportionately a much smaller amount of global trade. But $80 billion worth of weapons can have devastating impacts in countries all over the globe. In some countries, a very small amount of weapons can prove to be destabilizing if the country is already fragile.
FPI: In 2013, you helped create the Arms Trade Treaty to regulate the illicit trade of weapons. Can you break down the treaty for us?
The Arms Trade Treaty is a landmark agreement because it’s the first time any rules were established over the international trade in conventional arms. There have been treaties that look at specific weapons, but this was the first time that governments came together and said, ‘Let’s establish rules that cover the legal trade in conventional arms.’
Obviously states have done a lot to curb the illicit trade, but the reality is that most weapons start their life cycle as legally produced and legally traded weapons and enter the black market at some point in their life cycle. The idea behind the Arms Trade Treaty was if we established clear rules, we would be able to prevent weapons from moving into the illicit market. It is not intended to be an anti-arms or anti-trade treaty. It is really about rules and defining principles and standards that governments can implement at the national level to ensure weapons are traded in a responsible way.
What the Arms Trade Treaty does is two things. First, it establishes very specific criteria as to when states can or cannot transfer weapons. There’s a section in the treaty that lists prohibitions when states are not allowed to provide arms, and it lists in another article specific criteria states have to consider when making arms transfer decisions. There are specific prohibitions listed. For example, a transfer that would violate a U.N. sanction or an embargo or be used to commit war crimes is not allowed.
The second piece, and a fundamental goal of the treaty, is to increase transparency over the global arms trade. Unlike the trade in other commodities, there’s relatively little information available publicly or even between governments with regards to the legal trade in arms. The treaty establishes some transparency mechanisms, specifically a report that states have to produce pertaining to their national system and how they control weapons in and out of and through their countries, as well as annual reports that list the weapons they are importing or exporting. That’s a major step, because most of the arms trade is conducted in secret and in the shadows, and to date there’s only been voluntary mechanisms that allow governments to share that kind of information. This is the first time we’ll have mandated transparency over the arms trade, and that’s a really big deal.
FPI: Can you tell us more the Arms Trade Treaty-Baseline Assessment Project, which you helped create?
My project partner, Paul Holtom, and I developed the project—what we refer to as ATT-BAP—to provide an interim measure for tracking and assessing treaty implementation as states prepared to ratify and ultimately implement the ATT. The danger with any treaty is that states don’t adopt or implement its provisions. In many cases, it’s up to outside observers to monitor progress on the treaty. We identified very quickly after the ATT was adopted that there was this time gap between when the treaty was adopted and when it would enter into force, and in that interim period there were a lot of demands on states to improve their systems and make sure they were compliant. What we did—is developed a baseline assessment survey and checklist to help governments prepare.
These tools were specifically designed and intended to help governments ensure that their national arms transfer control system was in compliance with the ATT and, if it wasn’t, help them identify what those particular gaps and needs might be. Additionally, for governments that have resources and capacities in excess, we sought to identify what exactly they could offer to states that needed help. So in this process, we developed a questionnaire that we distributed to all U.N. member states for them to literally go article by article through the treaty and see how they comply with the treaty. The benefit of this effort was it helped states prepare their initial reports on treaty implementation. It also helped identify some best practices, areas where states needed assistance, and some areas where states had assistance to offer.
We had 63 governments complete the survey, which gave us a wealth of information to construct a baseline of treaty implementation. Unlike with land mines, where you can count causalities or injuries or count the number of unexploded weapons left on a battlefield, with conventional arms it’s much more difficult to gauge progress and identify impact. The true intent behind the project wasn’t to name and shame countries for not meeting their treaty requirements, or say, ‘Country X, your system has gaps,” but rather was intended to help states identify where they started with ATT implementation so that five, 10, or 15 years from now we can go back and see how those systems have improved. This kind of information can give us indicators we can measure since we can’t measure the consequences of the global arms trade in the same way as measuring the impact of specific weapon systems.
FPI: How can the international arms trade shed a light on conflicts in the Middle East and the terrorist group ISIS?
The Middle East has been for many decades the number one region where arms have flowed. That’s not just big arms but many small arms as well, flowing not just from the United States but from China, Russia, etc. Every country has played a part in the arms buildup in the Middle East for decades. The ‘91 Gulf War was a watershed event for increasing transparency over the global arms trade because every country realized they’d had a part in arming Saddam Hussein. There’s history of many countries being involved in providing weapons to the Middle East.
A lot of ISIS’s successes have come not from using fighter aircrafts or tanks, but many small arms and light weapons that have either been stolen from existing stockpiles in the region or transferred into the region because of very porous and hard to control borders. You’re seeing weapons—particularly smaller, light weapons—move quite freely throughout the region. You had the fall of the Gaddafi government in Libya, which opened up arsenals as well, and those weapons have circulated throughout North Africa and the Middle East. You’re seeing weapons from all corners of the globe making their way to the Middle East.
Obviously a dirty bomb or a weapon of mass destruction in the hands of a terrorist organization would be devastating and horrific, but the reality is that ISIS already has all the weapons they need to wage war, create fear, and kill many, many people. Small arms have often been called weapons of individual destruction, and we’re seeing that very clearly in the Middle East with untold suffering.
In Yemen what you’re seeing is a lot of airstrikes—other countries bombing Yemen. So there’s a case where you have heavy conventional weapons contributing to humanitarian suffering. It’s not so much on-the-ground fighting, although that exists as well, but it’s much more the dropping of bombs and cluster munitions. The legacy of these weapons can last well beyond when they are actually dropped.
FPI: What are the consequences of the unregulated trade of illicit arms?
The direct consequences we think about most readily are things like how many people are killed, injured, or separated from their families; how many people had to flee and become refugees or were internally displaced. We can sort of count those things. You can count people. You can count refugees. All of those things are quantifiable.
Where the issues dealing with the aftermath of conventional weapons and the arms trade are most relevant for thinking about long-term humanitarian suffering are things that are not quantifiable. You could count, for example, how many schools were forced to close and how many hospitals were overburdened with victims from conflict and unable to provide preventive care or vaccinations. You can count those things. But you can’t count the long-term impact of a lack of education on a community. And where doctors have had to flee, what does that do to development and sustainable security for countries over time? Those are harder to measure.
You start to see those secondary or indirect effects, such as malnutrition. You may see preventable diseases increasing because kids haven’t been vaccinated. You could also see a loss in tourism or business revenue in investment because it becomes too expensive to do business because of the security situation in a given country, in which case the conflict holds numerous challenges and consequences for economic development. Those consequences are much harder to measure, but the legacy lasts for decades after a conflict has ended.
FPI: What brought you into this field?
My ideal had been to work on weapons of mass destruction and preventing a nuclear holocaust, which was sort of the most pressing issue of our time. And then the Cold War ended, and I started to look at the reality of what was causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people every year—what was causing human suffering now, not from a hypothetical or theoretical standpoint. That is very clearly conventional weapons. I wanted to focus on what contribution I could make to remove at least part of the threat to human beings around the world, and that is to ensure that the legitimate trade in arms is done in a responsible and transparent way.
FPI: Where do you hope to see the international arms trade moving in the next five years?
I hope we see a more responsible international arms trade in the next five years. That we see those norms of transfer start to take hold in the government decision-making processes, that we see weapons flowing between legitimate users and not falling into the hands of illicit or nefarious actors who would use them to harm civilian populations. I think it’s a slow process, but I’m hopeful that we are laying the groundwork today that will allow us in the next five years to look back and say, ‘We have improved the safety and security of the national arms trade system.’
I would say the other thing is there’s so many emerging technologies and a need to identify where they fit in existing frameworks. Are they conventional weapons, are they nuclear, etc. Where do these new weapons fit in? I think what’s exciting is to think, ‘Do they need their own sort of control systems or rules governing their trade and use, or do we have enough existing standards that will help guide governments in their use and establishing rules of the road?’ I think that’s going to be an exciting new field over the horizon.
FPI: Do you have any tips for future and fellow interruptors?
Speak up. In this field, you’re often the only woman in the room or there’s very few of you, and if you don’t speak up and assert yourself, you will be missed. It’s important to make sure you’re in the room and you participate in these discussions.
I teach at Georgetown, and I always say to my students, ‘I don’t expect everybody to become conventional arms trade analysts, but I do expect you to understand how these issues relate to the work you’re going to be doing.’ Almost every security and foreign policy job is somehow touched by the conventional arms trade, whether it’s from a trade perspective, an impact perspective, a development perspective, a conflict perspective, a security perspective, etc. There are ways in which the arms trade is relevant to the work that you do, so it’s important to familiarize yourself with the issue.
The other thing is stay up with current events. Know what’s going on not only in the area of the world where you’re working, but also in the world around you. So many conflicts today are interconnected, and it’s important to have a global view and not get so focused and myopic on one area of the world or one particular issue or topic.
Make sure you find mentors—and female mentors are particularly great—who can help you navigate this often male-dominated field and identify opportunities, even if it’s just to attend a conference or a networking session. Try to constantly build your network and meet people— even outside your area of expertise, because you never know. Someone you met at a particular conference may be incredibly helpful down the line to accomplishing something that’s really important to you.
Lastly, keep paying attention to fellow interruptors. The work that FPI is doing in helping spotlight and spread the word about female experts is so important. Find women whose work you admire, follow their efforts, and get to know them That way, when you’re sitting in on a planning meeting and you notice an all-male panel being created, you can speak up and recommend a female expert in the field. And you can plan your own events to showcase the work these amazing women do. Don’t wait for others to speak up on your behalf.