Towards the July Diplomatic Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty

Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt spoke at a seminar on the Arms Trade Treaty organised by the British Red Cross.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Alistair Burt


Thank you Sir Nicholas for your kind introduction and for inviting me to take part in this event today. I am delighted to be here to demonstrate the intimate relationship that the government enjoys with the British Red Cross in general, and on the Arms Trade Treaty in particular. Indeed, since the very start of the United Nations process on the Treaty, we have worked together closely on the matter. So it is fitting that we are meeting again on the eve of the negotiations that we hope will lead to the successful conclusion that we all want after more than six years work: a robust and effective Arms Trade Treaty that introduces consistent standards to the global arms trade, which are underpinned by our values and our respect for human rights and international humanitarian law.

I thought I would start by explaining why this government places such importance on the Arms Trade Treaty. I will then outline the British vision for the Treaty and how we have been working to achieve this vision at the Diplomatic Conference.
The need for an Arms Trade Treaty**

It has been estimated that approximately three quarters of a million people are killed each year in armed violence. Millions more lives are blighted through injury, displacement and destroyed livelihoods.

However, in a world in which violence is a reality, states require the ability to protect themselves and their citizens. The UK does not believe it is wrong to help them by proving the means to do so. But, protecting human life also requires the use and international trade of arms to be carefully circumscribed.

So while there is a legitimate arms trade, there is also an urgent need for more effective and coherent international regulation of that trade. An Arms Trade Treaty can provide that coherence. It can and should lay out common international standards to which all defence industries have to work.

Recognising this potential, the UK has been a leading proponent of an Arms Trade Treaty, since co-authoring the original UN Resolution on the Treaty in 2006.

We have made significant progress since then. And the overwhelming majority of UN Member States have shown a true desire to address the problems posed by unregulated trade in conventional arms. Indeed, the Open Ended Working Group agreed by consensus that all UN Member States had a responsibility to address these problems. I strongly believe that a robust and effective, legally binding Arms Trade Treaty is the best way to do this.

So, with fewer than two weeks to go before the start of the Diplomatic Conference in New York, let me make absolutely clear this Government’s staunch commitment to securing such a Treaty.
Our vision for the Arms Trade Treaty**

What might a robust and effective Treaty look like? Well, the British approach has been guided by three fundamental principles:

First, the Arms Trade Treaty should be legally binding, but nationally enforced. This will ensure the global consistency required to make the Treaty effective, whilst maintaining state signatories’ right to decide on arms transfers.

Second, the Treaty should set a floor for governing the global arms trade not a ceiling. It is important that states be allowed - and indeed encouraged - to operate higher standards than those prescribed.

Third, the Treaty should seek to regulate the legitimate arms trade, and not only to address illicit or illegal arms flows.

Ultimately, there is a fine balance to be struck. On the one hand, we want the Treaty to have sufficiently high standards to meet its aims and objectives. On the other, we want the Treaty to have wide enough participation of states to provide the global coverage required to be truly effective.

Striking this balance key to the Treaty’s success and, as in all multilateral negotiations, it will involve compromises. However, a Treaty that is weak and ineffective - or worse still, one that legitimises low standards - will not be acceptable to the UK and we will not sign one.

Our negotiators will face a plethora of views as to what a robust and effective Arms Trade Treaty looks like. From our own perspective, we believe that it should cover all conventional weapons and their munitions; including small arms and light weapons, specially designed parts and components, and manufacturing technology. It should cover a range of activities such as exports, imports, transits and transhipments, and brokering. These activities are all very different, and will of course need to be dealt with in different ways, but they are all integral to effective regulation of trade in arms.

And it is also of great importance to us for the Treaty to include strong provisions on human rights, international humanitarian law and sustainable development, and that addresses issues of corruption in the arms trade - which according to the US Department of Commerce accounts for fifty percent of all corrupt transactions globally. This is an astounding figure bearing in mind that the value of arms traded annually accounts for less than one percent of global trade.

How the Treaty is implemented will also be important. There must be a requirement for transparency and reporting mechanisms that cover both its implementation and its application.

Now, I had better not give away all the intricacies of our negotiating positions so close to the start of the Diplomatic Conference. But you can rest assured that they are well thought out, and devised to secure the highest standard of Treaty possible.

Preparations for the Diplomatic Conference

And while the Conference itself has not yet started, our negotiating engine is already at full throttle. Ministers and senior officials from across Government have been regularly raising the Arms Trade Treaty in their bilateral and multilateral meetings. We have been energising and working with key international groupings; such as the P5, the European Union and the Commonwealth. We are using the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s extensive network of Posts across the globe to lobby and influence their host countries.

Importantly, where those countries have expressed concerns about a Treaty, we have listened and worked with them to address those concerns. It is crucial that this continues at the Diplomatic Conference.

We are working closely with civil society, including NGOs, the British defence industry and organisations like the British Red Cross. Their expertise and knowledge has helped to inform our positions. And the presence of Anna MacDonald from Oxfam and Andrew Wood from Rolls Royce, who represent the NGO and defence industry communities on the UK’s Arms Trade Treaty Team, has helped to co-ordinate our activities.

We have also provided funding for a range of activities in support of the Treaty, which have included working with the NGO community to encourage potentially influential States to participate actively and positively and funding research seminars focussed on how we can construct a Treaty that can be effectively implemented. It is important that the voice of civil society is heard in July, not just by our own delegation, but by delegations from other states too. So we have also provided funding to enable NGO representatives from developing states to attend the Diplomatic Conference.


There is no doubt that securing a successful outcome at the Diplomatic Conference will be a great challenge. It will be an intense four weeks. But we have assembled a delegation of the highest calibre led by Ambassador Jo Adamson, who spoke to you earlier, and comprising representatives from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Ministry of Defence and Department for International Development. They will be supported by colleagues in London and across our vast network of Embassies, High Commissions and Consulates. I will attend the beginning of the Conference to highlight to the international community the UK’s continuing commitment to Arms Trade Treaty.

There is a common appreciation of the opportunity at stake to make the world a safer place. With someone killed in armed conflict every minute, we believe that an Arms Trade Treaty has huge potential to save lives. We will be working tirelessly throughout July to grasp this opportunity.

Published 21 June 2012