Process over Progress in the Conventional Arms Trade 

Raluca Muresan and Alexander Jahns, Control Arms

The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed international and regional efforts to regulate the global trade in conventional arms, forcing governments to postpone or limit expectations for multilateral meetings over the past two years. At the same time, irresponsible and illicit transfers and the diversion of conventional weapons have continued to fuel conflict and armed violence around the world.

Nevertheless, 2022 marked an eventful return to multilateral efforts to address the challenges posed by unregulated and illicit arms transfers with states coming together to discuss progress towards the implementation of the UN Program of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons (UNPoA) and the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) and to develop a new global framework to regulate conventional ammunition. International meetings brought renewed momentum to these important issues. They also provided space to discuss the relationship between existing and emerging conflicts and the global arms trade, but states are yet to respond with concrete action. 

To ensure meaningful progress towards preventing illicit and irresponsible arms transfers, the international community must ground its efforts to develop and implement normative frameworks on conventional arms and ammunition in the real and urgent need to reduce human suffering in countries affected by conflict and armed violence. Only in doing so, can states and other stakeholders begin to consider the human cost of the international conventional arms trade. 

Why it Matters: the Current Humanitarian Context[1]

A group of people wearing suits stand together and hold signs that include images of conflict zones with the text of countries overlaying the images. Prominent in the photo is a sign containing an image of a young boy standing in front of a burned car with the word "Yemen" in the bottom right corner of the sign.
Credit: Ralf Schlesener|Control Arms, 2017

In the Sahel region, where eight civilians are killed every dayrifles used by armed groups were manufactured in Serbia and sold legally to Burkina Faso, before falling into the hands of non-state actors in Burkina Faso and Mali. In Southeast Asia, several countries, including China and Serbia, both parties to the ATT, as well as Russia, have supplied arms to Myanmar’s military junta since it seized power in a coup in February 2021. During the same period in Myanmar, over 1,600 people have been killed by security forces and their affiliates, and more than 12,500 people have been detained; 14 million are currently in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, the delivery of which has largely been blocked by the military. 

Irresponsible arms supplies also continued to fuel the conflict in Yemen, now in its seventh year. Despite becoming the largest humanitarian catastrophe in modern times, in August 2022, the Saudi-backed Yemen military committee suspended peace talks with Shiite Houthi in Amman. At the same time, the United States approved the sale of $3 billion worth of missiles to Saudi Arabia. ATT states parties, including the UK, Canada, and France, also continued to supply weapons to the Saudi-led coalition throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, despite evidence of numerous violations of international humanitarian and human rights law committed by Saudi Arabia and its allies. 

Violations of similar type and severity have also been documented to have been committed by Russian forces in Ukraine. Here, Russia’s illegal actions have prompted a swift response from the international community, including the provision of military assistance from over 25 countries to support Ukraine in preserving its right to self-defense. However, the unprecedented volume and speed with which these arms are supplied are raising concerns over possible battlefield capture by Russian forces and arms proliferation beyond Ukraine’s borders by means of diversion. 

Eighth Biennial Meeting of States (BMS8) on the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (UNPoA), June 27-July 1, 2022, New York 

At BMS8, states focused on exploring ways to use international cooperation and assistance to support the implementation of the UNPoA, a political instrument (non-legally binding) established in 2001 as a normative framework for states to “prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects.”

The BMS8 outcome document represented continued progress on many issues. It addressed steps for advancing sustainable international cooperation and assistance frameworks to implement the UNPoA and the associated International Tracing Instrument as well as the development of national action plans and concrete targets for UNPoA implementation. BMS8 also saw renewed attention to the effects of armed violence on youth and vulnerable communities, positive momentum concerning gender and its relationship to small arms, and measured progress in terms of incorporating new technologies into the scope of the UNPoA. 

However, the omission of ammunition from the BMS8 final report continues to limit the UNPoA’s ability to provide a comprehensive approach toward combating armed violence fueled by the illicit arms trade. Also concerning was the continued opposition by a number of states to include reference to synergies between the PoA and relevant international instruments. Rather than taking an inclusive approach when it comes to synergies with mutually reinforcing international instruments, such as the ATT and the Firearms Protocol, some states chose to limit opportunities to maximize existing international assistance for these complementary international instruments.

Open-Ended Working Group on Ammunition (OEWG on Ammunition), February 7-8 and May 23-27, 2022, New York; August 15-19, 2022, Geneva

While this decade has seen significant progress toward improving and strengthening conventional weapons controls, ammunition has largely remained outside all major conventional arms control instruments. This gap in ammunition controls make its diversion and misuse easier to conduct and harder to trace. Three meetings of the OEWG on Ammunition took place this year, in February and May in New York and in August in Geneva.  With its stated purpose to elaborate a “new global framework that will address existing gaps in through-life ammunition management,” the establishment of this working group provides a long-awaited opportunity to fully address all aspects of ammunition management—production, pre-transfer, transfer, stockpile, recovery, use, and disposal. This broad approach to ammunition controls allows the OEWG on Ammunition to go beyond Physical Security and Stockpile Management (PSSM), which is already extensively covered by existing international and regional frameworks, and to explore both the safety and the security of conventional ammunition in a variety of contexts. 

Another important aspect of the OEWG on Ammunition is its modular approach to the development of a comprehensive framework for conventional ammunition management. It covers ammunition safety and security on three different levels (multilateral, regional and national) with the support of three mechanisms (international political commitments, tailored and articulated regional commitments, and voluntary national implementation with a global support system). These multiple entry points allow for the development of a more robust system while offering more flexibility and avenues for agreement on issues that have remained intractable in other multilateral fora.

While many states agreed on the principles of ammunition security during the OEWG on Ammunition meetings, the prerequisites to achieve these principles remain a contentious issue. A number of states, for instance, have expressed concerns that the global framework on ammunition should not place limitations on the import and export of ammunition. 

Eighth Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty (CSP8), August 22-26, 2002, Geneva 

ATT states parties continued to meet during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic using a variety of formats, but with limited progress towards ensuring effective implementation or compliance with the treaty’s provisions. This year, the shift toward broader in-person attendance at the ATT’s CSP8 seemed to stimulate more substantive discussions on a number of agenda items including treaty universalization, and transparency and reporting, and this year’s thematic focus on Post-Shipment Controls and Coordination.

Credit: Control Arms, 2022

Treaty universalization has slowed over the past few years. As a result, this year ATT stakeholders stressed the need for targeted and innovative approaches to encourage new states to join the ATT. Anticipating this need, the co-chairs of the ATT Working Group on Treaty Universalization, Germany and Sierra Leone, put forward a series of recommendations aimed to ensure continuity and sustainability in ATT universalization outreach efforts. Discussions also focused on the continuing downward trend towards reduced compliance with ATT reporting requirements and the uptick in private reporting rates, both of which indicate a lack of transparency in the ATT process and the international arms trade, more broadly. To combat these trends, the ATT Working Group on Transparency and Reporting encouraged states parties to make use of the tools available to them, such as the Voluntary Trust Fund to support states in meeting their requirements, the information-exchange platform for peer-to-peer learning opportunities, and the implementation of the Outreach Strategy on Reporting—all of which are designed to help states overcome obstacles to reporting.

Notably this year, states parties made specific reference to the application of the ATT risk assessment to the war in Ukraine, with several direct statements indicating that the treaty should be interpreted so as to prohibit arms transfers to Russia. A number of states also discussed, during a public event co-sponsored by Control Arms and Saferworld, their decisions to provide military assistance to Ukraine, including information regarding the process they undertook to consider the risk that arms transferred to the Ukrainian government could be used to commit of facilitate violations set out in Articles 6 and 7 of the ATT. This transparency is an important development, as over the past eight years states have shown reluctance to discuss or share information regarding national arms transfer decision-making processes, or to make statements relating to ATT compliance, preferring instead to focus on the technical aspects of treaty implementation. 

Another important development this year was the inaugural meeting of the Diversion Information Exchange Forum (DIEF). The DIEF provides a space for informal exchange between ATT states parties and signatories on concrete cases of diversion or suspected diversion and for sharing concrete, operational diversion-related information. While this meeting is closed to all other ATT stakeholders, an informal presentation to the CSP8 plenary by the DIEF chair confirmed that the inaugural meeting saw broad and active participation from a regionally balanced set of States Parties. 


With a return to in-person meetings, 2022 saw notable efforts to engage in substantive discussions related to conventional arms controls. From recommendations related to international cooperation and assistance for the implementation of the UNPoA, to a comprehensive framework to ensure “through life” ammunition safety and security, to guidance on post-shipment controls, states have tackled important and timely matters. However, continued irresponsible arms flows to conflict zones and countries affected by armed violence clearly demonstrate that much remains to be done to reduce human suffering. 

States must focus not only on processes and guidance, but also on progress and compliance. It is time to discuss how these multilateral efforts are working in practice and where they face challenges. While it was positive to hear at CSP8 how states have assessed possible arms transfers to Russia and Ukraine, further public discussions on actual cases of diversion, risk assessment application and arms transfer decision-making processes are needed. Such open discussions will provide valuable information to strengthen ATT compliance and will assist new states parties with arms transfer control systems in development. 

It is also critical for the international community to bridge international efforts on conventional arms and ammunition controls, rather than forging ahead separately. Only by connecting these processes can states ensure that these frameworks make a difference in conflict and armed violence reduction. In 2022, across all these multilateral conferences, there was a more pronounced focus on international cooperation and information exchange. This focus can provide an entry point for states and stakeholders to identify synergies and implement these instruments jointly to ensure they form a comprehensive framework which effectively addresses challenges posed by irresponsible and illicit arms transfers. 

The UNGA First Committee on International Security and Disarmament, running from October 3-November 4, is an opportunity for states and other stakeholders who engage with the UNPoA on Small Arms and Light Weapons, the OEWG on Ammunition, and the Arms Trade Treaty to work together to maintain momentum and strengthen the foundation of conventional arms control. With this kind of coordination, these instruments, both individually and collectively, can reduce human suffering fueled by irresponsible arms transfers and other safety and security gaps. And as always in these endeavors, to make a lasting difference, states must consider the human cost of arms transfers on communities affected by conflict and armed violence.

[1] A version of this section was also included in Reaching Critical Will’s First Committee Briefing Book 2022.

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