The recent BRICS Summit in Fortaleza, Brazil concluded with the announcement of a development bank and reserve fund, intended to enable emerging and developing nations to mobilise resources for infrastructure and sustainable development goals. The move gives the BRICS credibility in its claim to seek a fairer global economic order, allowing the economic upliftment of their nations’ citizens and those of other developing states.
But in aiming to secure these goals, BRICS should be champions of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) too. Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in April 2013, the ATT represents a first step toward filling the gaping hole in international regulation of conventional arms trade. The ATT requires countries to establish national mechanisms to curtail illicit trade in conventional arms and also requires that states consider the human rights implications of their international arms transfers and refrain from authorising trades where arms may be used in genocides, war crimes, terrorism and international organized crime.
Those might seem more humanitarian than economic concerns but as developing states and representatives of the developing world, the BRICS well know the plague an opaque arms trade represents on sustainable development. Availability of and access to conventional arms can exacerbate, intensify, and prolong armed violence; and irresponsible arms transfers cost countries economic opportunities by fostering external debt, corruption, and inappropriate military spending.
Yet Brazil and South Africa are the only BRICS countries thus far to have signed the ATT. BRICS support for the Treaty is especially important as BRICS counts among its members the world’s second and fifth largest arms exporters (Russia and China, respectively) and the first and second largest arms importers (China and India, respectively).
Analysts might observe that the significance of arms imports and export to China, Russia and India is exactly the reason they’re unlikely to support the ATT. But the importance of the trade to Brazil and South Africa, among the initial supporters of the treaty, is hardly negligible. Brazil is the second largest exporter of small arms and ammunition in the Western Hemisphere and South Africa is the largest exporter of conventional weapons on the African continent.
As major arms exporters, Russia and China are in prime positions to renovate the industry, as their track records for providing arms to countries where known human rights violations occur is worrisome. Russia is currently believed to be Syria’s largest arms supplier; and China exports to a host of states with poor human rights records.
Notably, no major player in international arms dealing has questioned the legitimate purposes of the ATT: to regulate international arms transfers worldwide, reduce human suffering, and contribute to international peace, security and stability. It is undeniable that the lack of transparency in arms transfers leads to an unacceptable loss of lives around the globe—about 750,000 annual deaths.
Instead, arguments against signing on to the Treaty have focused on the text’s specific shortcomings. Russian Foreign Ministry Security and Disarmament Department Director and head of the Russian Delegation at the UN, Mikhail Ulyanov, justified the country’s abstaining in the General Assembly vote because the ATT “declares good targets,” but is “rather shallow in essence.” China ostensibly abstained because it found a General Assembly vote an inappropriate forum for adopting the ATT. India’s criticisms have focused on the ATT’s “unbalanced” nature vis-à-vis exporting versus importing states, as well as its perceived ambiguity on the issues of terrorism and non-state actors.
The time for such excuses has passed. The overwhelming global approval for the ATT (154 countries in favour; 3 against) speaks to the importance of universality for an instrument like the ATT. As Brazil and South Africa expressed at their respective signings, the fundamental virtue of a global treaty regulating conventional arms trade is vast, even where the text had not incorporated all of their individual aspirations. The simple fact that there is room for improvement should not be fatal to countries’ support.
Undermining universality of a treaty like the ATT allows states to find loopholes and continue unregulated trade, as well as perpetuates potentially discriminatory effects on State Parties versus Non-State-Parties. It also overlooks the fact that this Treaty will require changes in domestic legislation and, more importantly, in behaviour. As party to the ATT, a country’s ability to strengthen international arms trade norms will increase, not the other way around.
With China’s recent public announcement that it “has no difficulty on the Treaty’s text” and “is currently studying the issue of signing of the ATT”, it would seem that a majority of BRICS countries now support the Treaty. Still BRICS as a bloc must endorse it. A reformed global economic order demands it because no trade could be less fair, more unjust, than an unregulated arms trade.
Nicole Fritz is the director and Evan Alston an intern at the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC).