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India’s response to the UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT)

By Piyush Singh

India urgently needs to reduce its dependence on arms export and needs to develop its indigenous nascent defence industry to protect its borders. 

The road to the UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) has been long and convoluted. In 2006, under Resolution 61/89, the Assembly had recognised that the absence of common international standards on the import, export and transfer of conventional arms was a “contributory factor to conflict, the displacement of people, crime and terrorism” and that it undermined peace, reconciliation, safety, security, stability, and sustainable development.

It called on the UN Secretary-General to establish a group of governmental experts to examine, beginning in 2008, “the feasibility, scope and draft parameters for a comprehensive, legally binding instrument establishing common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms”.

On April 2, 2013, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) passed the draft text of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). 154 Countries voted for the treaty, 3 voted against and 23 Countries abstained including India, Russia and China. Countries like China and Pakistan made a fuss about linking the Arms sale to human rights issue. China which is already suffering a major European Union (EU) arms sale ban after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 said that linking arms sale to human right violations would be a caveat of the treaty because it will put into question who is going to decide what are basic human rights and who is going to decide who is violating human rights of whom?

India’s point of contention with regard to the treaty is that it does not regulate the sale of arms to terrorist organisation and non-state actors. As Sujatha Mehta, head of Indian delegation at the UN, argued that the ATT is “weak on terrorism and non-state actors and these concerns find no mention in its specific prohibitions.” Mehta insisted that the ATT does not contain any provision as to how to curb arms flow to religious extremists.

If the wordings of the treaty are read then India, which is one of the largest arms importer in the world, would be at the mercy of the exporting states who will decide whether India has the right to buy the arms or not. This will be gross violation of Article 51 of the UN charter which states that each state has the right to individual and collective defensive action and includes right to import and retain legitimate arms for self-defence and security needs. What if a proxy war is being staged by non-state actors as in the case of Mumbai Attacks of 26/11? India contends that arms trade has been and will always remain a bilateral issue and their enforcement through an international regime will be a very tricky point.

India also objects to Article 6 read with Article 7 of the treaty which says that export of weapons not prohibited are subject to assessment by the exporting states. This gives the exporting states the right to verify the weapon systems they have sold to the importing states at any point and if found to be in contravention of the obligations of the treaty’s basic principles, stop such exports in future and not provide after sales necessary back end technical support. India has always resisted any sort of interference by exporting states into how we use our weapon systems and for what purpose. Providing a backdoor access to the same will be a gross violation of India’s sovereignty and will be highly intrusive.

Moreover illicit arms trafficking across South Asia is posing a great internal security challenge to India. Arms from Pakistan and China are landing up in the hands of Naxals and Rebel groups in North East India which is one of the major areas of conflict for the Country. The Treaty in its current form does not have any provision for sale of illicit arms to non-state actors. The ATT should maintain a database of all international transfer of conventional arms and weapons. This would be of enormous benefit to India, as presence of ATT would keep a check on such transfer and thus help in better tackling the unregulated arms market in South Asia. The treaty also invariably brings into the concept of arming of good terrorists and denying arms to hostile governments like Iran, Syria And North Korea. The recent arming of rebel groups in Syria by USA and UK is a case in point.

The treaty also does not include all arms transfers but only arms sales which means that it does not apply to cases where the arms are being loaned, leased or transferred as gifts. India contends that such a loophole can be used by countries to look for underground arms sales and transfers and further increase the frequency of illicit transfer under different guises.

India along with the USA has objected to Article 12 of the treaty which paves way for record keeping and maintenance of national records of conventional weapons. National Rifle Association of USA said that the treaty violates the basic fundamental right of US citizens to bear arms as provided under the Second Amendment of the US Constitution and will not allow the treaty to be ratified in the US Senate.

India agrees on principle to regulate arms trade in the world but has put its national security and interests to the forefront. India can be held to ransom through certain provisions of the treaty during a crisis which would hamper its security interests and will be left at the whims and whips of the exporting countries. There needs to be a proper balance of obligations between exporting and importing states whereby they both share certain responsibilities and duties. India urgently needs to reduce its dependence on arms export and needs to develop its indigenous nascent defence industry to protect its borders.

Piyush Singh is a law student with an interest in India-China Relations, Nuclear Law and Energy. He is completing his internship with the Takshashila Institution. 

One Response to India’s response to the UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT)

  1. Akshay December 11, 2013 at 4:10 am #

    An informative read in addition to being understandable by a layman!

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