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Fact Sheet
Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation
Washington, DC
October 31, 2008

U.S. Position on Arms Trade Treaty (ATT)

Key Points

  • The United States supports the goal of promoting responsibility in arms transfers and reducing the destabilizing trade in illicit arms.
  • The United States does not believe, however, that a global Arms Trade Treaty would accomplish that goal.

  • The United States voted against the resolution on ATT that recently adopted by the UN General Assembly because it did not reflect the recommendations on how to proceed that were agreed upon by the 2008 UN Group of Government Experts on the ATT.


On October 31 in New York, the United States voted against the UNGA First Committee (UNFC) resolution on an ATT, which passed by a vote of 144-2(U.S.)-18. It was cosponsored by more than 110 countries. Zimbabwe cast the other vote against the resolution; Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Israel were among the abstentions. This resolution followed up the 2006 resolution on ATT, UNGA Resolution 61/89, which passed by a similar vote.

Although the United States supports greater responsibility in arms transfers and reducing the destabilizing trade in illicit arms, we voted against both ATT resolutions due to our concern that a global ATT would not be an effective instrument to accomplish those goals. Moreover, this year's resolution departed from the recommendations on how to proceed that were agreed upon by the Group of Government Experts (GGE) convened this year to discuss an ATT.

Notwithstanding U.S. opposition to an ATT, the United States participated constructively in the GGE, and worked hard to ensure that its report conveyed the complex nature of the international arms trade and the need to avoid ineffective or detrimental measures, and agreed future work required a consensus approach. U.S. efforts were echoed by major arms suppliers like Russia and China, and aimed at ensuring high, implementable standards.

The GGE agreed to a short, substantive report in August that indicates that there was no consensus on the feasibility, scope, and parameters of a Treaty. The GGE recognized the danger of working on an ATT in a freestanding forum where not all the major players were represented, and recommended that further discussions on an ATT occur within the UN system on "a step-by-step" basis in an open and transparent manner to achieve a balance on the basis of consensus.

Q. Why did you the United States vote against the ATT resolution before the UN General Assembly in New York?

  • The ATT resolution failed to take into account the work plan developed by the 2008 UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on the ATT, particularly its call to address this issue on a “step-by-step basis” and “on the basis of consensus”.
  • The United States participated in the GGE’s work and approved the measured approach outlined in its recommendations to the UN Secretary-General.

  • The United States agreed with the recommendation of the GGE that a first step would be for all States to ensure that their national systems and internal controls are at the highest possible standards.

  • The United States maintains high standards for all U.S. arms transfers, including broad scrutiny by the U.S. Congress, and provides significant funding and programmatic support to help other governments develop similar high standards.

Q. Why is consensus important for discussions on ATT?

  • An ATT would touch on one of the most sensitive and important parts of the UN Charter – the right of states to self-defense. The ATT's "one size fits all" approach to international standards for arms transfers could interfere with the ability of states to secure the weapons they need to defend themselves.
  • The best way to reassure states that the ATT will not undermine their security is to have the discussions proceed on a consensus basis.

  • Additionally, an ATT negotiating mandate that does not have the full backing of the key supplier states will not accomplish the states goals of those seeking this treaty.

Q. Doesn't the resolution currently call for consensus?

  • No. A careful reading of the resolution shows that the Open-Ended Working Group convened by the resolution should begin by examining areas where consensus might be possible. It does not specify that the Group should operate by consensus.
  • To put it another way, the resolution specifies "what" the Group should work on without specifying "how" the Group should work. This concern is sufficiently important to the United States that we believe the resolution must be unambiguous on this point.

Q. Do we really need the states with concerns about an ATT to participate in the process? Why not just go ahead with the like-minded states and wait for the laggards to catch up?

  • For an ATT to be effective, it must have the support of the leading arms suppliers. The vote on the resolution shows that states with more than 60 percent of the world arms trade have significant reservations on an ATT. This issue is too important to gamble that these states will come around in time.

Q. Isn’t an arms trade treaty necessary to counter human rights abuses?

  • An effective arms trade treaty would undoubtedly serve to reduce the access to conventional weapons of countries that abuse human rights; however, as a practical matter, we believe that it is more likely negotiations will lead to a treaty that contains watered down international standards that do not meet those we have pressed internationally through the various multilateral arms regimes in which the United States participates.
  • As a matter of policy, the U.S. reviews all potential sales of U.S.-origin defense articles and services to ensure that they are consistent with U.S. national security interests and foreign policy, and human rights concerns are an important part of this review.

Q. Instead of negotiating an ineffective ATT, what does the USG want other countries to do?

  • Countries can take action now to prevent illicit arms transfers; there is no need to wait for an ATT. The U.S. recommends that governments examine their existing arms transfer laws, regulations, and policies and take the measures necessary to strengthen them. Important measures include:
    • national registration of arms exporters and brokers,
    • regulation of all exports of defense articles and services,
    • a requirement for licenses for all export and brokering activities, and
    • establishing and implementing the means to impose criminal and civil penalties on violators.

Q. Besides advocating stronger export controls on conventional arms, what is the U.S. doing to reduce the danger posed by illicit weapons transfers?

  • The U.S. has been the world’s leader in implementing the UN’s Program of Action on Small Arms/Light Weapons to reduce the spread of illicit arms transfers. We support transparency in conventional weapons transfers through the UN Register of Conventional Arms Transfers, the Forum for Security Cooperation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Wassenaar Arrangement.

  • The U.S. has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to help other governments develop their export control systems, and also has helped other states destroy excess, loosely secured or otherwise at-risk weapons, as well as better secure those necessary for national security needs. These efforts have demonstrated results and will remain more effective than a weak international alternative.

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