First-ever Global Arms Trade Treaty!

International law has firmer rules for the trade of commodities like bananas and electronics than it does conventional arms.

Abigail Nehring for Think Africa Press.

A key step to remedy this situation was taken today, April 2, 2013, when the United Nations overwhelmingly approved the 1st– ever global Arms Trade Treaty. The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) aims to regulate the $70 billion business in conventional arms and keep weapons out of the hands of human rights abusers.

155 countries voted in support. Iran, Syria, and North Korea were the only countries to vote “no”. 22 other countries abstained.

Supporters included the United States, which voted “yes” despite the opposition of the National Rifle Association (NRA). The NRA has pledged to fight against the treaty’s ratification by the U.S. Senate. As the world’s number one arms exporter, U.S. support for the treaty is particularly important.

Other major arms-exporting countries  –  Russia, China , Russia, and India (ranked 2nd, 5th, and 13th respectively in arms exports) were among the 22 abstaining countries. They could, however, be persuaded to eventually sign the treaty. It is reported that some delegates, understandably, expressed concern about the effectiveness of an arms trade treaty not subscribed to by the major arms exporters.

Importance for African, Caribbean & Other Vulnerable States

Countries in Africa and the Caribbean have robustly supported and lobbied for the ATT. The international trade in arms was estimated to be worth around 100 billion US dollars in 2012 and growing fast. The unregulated trade in arms disproportionately affects the vulnerable in the small, open islands of the Caribbean and the fragile states in Africa.

Child SoldierThe CBS News Magazine, “60 Minutes” has for the last twelve years followed the journey of the Lost Boys of Sudan, the collective name given to over 20,000 young boys displaced as a result of war and the death of their parents. Thousands of young boys and girls have been “recruited” at gunpoint to become child soldiers in countries like Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Illegal guns easily end up in the hands of Somalian pirates who take hostage ships and their crew. And everywhere, it is the women and girls who get raped, at gunpoint.

The Treaty

The ATT creates common standards and rules to improve the control by states of the flow of arms. It regulates all conventional arms within the following categories: battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and missile launchers, and small arms and light weapons. The treaty also contains a prohibition on the transfer of arms which would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity and certain war crimes. It institutes an annual reporting system as well as regular meetings between heads of states to monitor implementation.

The treaty will enter into force 90 days after ratified by the 50th signatory.

The Gender Agenda in Trade

In many developing countries, the informal economy is at least as important as that economy which can be more easily captured in a country’s GDP measurements. For a number of families in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean,

Women selling in market(IITA Image Library)

Women selling in market
(IITA Image Library)

the informal sector is what has allowed them to survive, despite a world economic crisis and sinking national economies.

Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), a global action/research/policy network conducting research on this sector has defined the informal economy broadly to include the range of activities, enterprises and workers that are not regulated or protected by the state. This definition encompasses the vendors of products and services who conduct their business on busy city streets as well as producers and service providers who work from their homes.

In the developing world, the overwhelming majority of these informal workers are women. Sixty percent or more of women workers in the developing world are in the non-agricultural informal sector, reports WIEGO. Of these, a significant subset is involved in cross-border trade. The gender agenda in trade is incomplete without policies and strategies that address this group of women.

Cross-Border Traders

In the Caribbean, informal traders — known as “hucksters” in Dominica or traffickers in St. Vincent — ply an inter-island route on boats carrying produce to other islands. “Higglers” in Jamaica are both the backbone of the island’s agricultural marketing system as well as the “informal commercial importers” of cheap products from all over the world. While years ago they could be seen on flights between Aruba, Miami, or Panama, today’s favored source is China.

Data on cross-border informal traders is understandably hard to come by, but here are some compelling statistics:

  • In sub-Saharan Africa, 60% of the self-employed women working outside of the agricultural sector were involved in some aspect of cross-border trade (ILO, 2004)
  • The average value of informal cross-border trade in the 15 countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) was US$ 17.6 billion per year and 70% of informal cross-border traders are women.
  • In West and Central Africa, women informal cross border traders “employ” 1.2 people in their home businesses.


These women traders frequently operate in the shadows with inadequate recognition and support from the formal economy.

A USAID summary Women in Cross-Border Agricultural Trade highlights the discrimination that women face in the border process:

  • Women in India wait 37% longer than men to see the same customs official.
  • In East Africa, women cross-border traders are forced to pay larger bribes than their male counterparts or to provide sexual favors to border officials who detain the trader or confiscate her goods.
  • In Central Africa, customs officials commonly perceive those who trade in small quantities as “smugglers,” even when they pay the appropriate duties.

The very informality of their operations is also a challenge: Continue reading