One year ago today, President Trump announced the United States would “unsign” the Arms Trade Treaty. While this anniversary will likely be missed by a country and world grappling with COVID-19, it is worth reflecting on the impact of this political move. As the official consultant to the ATT process during more than five years of negotiations and conferences, I have worked with governments, civil society organizations, and industry on effective treaty implementation since the ATT was adopted and entered into force. I have also seen first-hand the impacts of the U.S. decision to “unsign,” both symbolic and pragmatic.
The ATT, which was adopted in April 2013, is the first legally binding global treaty to regulate the international trade in conventional arms – ranging from small arms to tanks, fighter jets, and warships. The treaty’s goal is to reduce the human suffering associated with the use of conventional weapons and promote cooperation, transparency, and responsible action in the global arms trade. The treaty establishes common standards for regulating international arms transfers. Today, 105 countries are party to the treaty and another 33 have signed it; it entered into force in December 2014. The United States signed the treaty in September 2013, but the Senate never ratified it.
From the outset, the president’s announcement to unsign the treaty was clearly rooted in domestic politics. The choice of venue – the National Rifle Association’s annual convention – provided a political backdrop to demonstrate the lobbying group’s influence, distract from internal NRA dysfunction, and empower political interest groups.
As an international legal matter, however, there is no magical eraser that allows a state to unsign a treaty. The U.S. signed the treaty in September 2013, and no mechanism exists to undo that decision. All the president did was publicly confirm what was already clear: The United States does not intend to ratify the treaty or be bound by its “object and purpose.” Anyone with a passing appreciation of American politics already knew that the United States was unlikely to ratify the Treaty anytime soon.
Yet for all the made-for-TV drama, the actual U.S. decision — and even the “unsigning” letter sent to the United Nations – have produced no tangible benefit for the country. Unsigning the ATT did nothing to protect Americans’ second-amendment rights. During the treaty negotiations, the United States had insisted that the Treaty not affect U.S. gun rights, laws, or regulations. Thus, unsigning it did nothing to help gun rights – they hadn’t been affected in the first place.
If the decision to “unsign” the treaty had no tangible benefit for the United States, it also provided no symbolic or political benefit, either outside the narrow confines of a one-sided domestic debate not based on the reality of Treaty. Internationally, the United States has further eroded its leadership position by ceding leadership on the issue to other countries, some of which may not share U.S. interests or values. For example, China used the unsigning as an opportunity to highlight how “responsible” its arms transfers are and committed to joining the treaty (though it has not yet done so).
More importantly, the United States lost credibility with the international community and in future negotiations. Numerous diplomats shared their disapproval of the U.S. position, especially after they had agreed to a weaker treaty to assuage U.S. concerns. Moreover, other diplomats worry that the U.S. decision will undermine attempts to make the treaty universal, call implementation efforts into question, and reduce the support available to countries who want to improve their national control systems and implement the treaty responsibly.
In addition to ceding leadership and damaging its own credibility, the United States has given up its seat at the table. Conferences of States Parties — the annual meetings of treaty stakeholders — have begun to look at treaty interpretation and implementation issues. This is good news for the treaty, but bad news for the United States: When the president unsigned the treaty, he hung U.S. diplomats out to dry. U.S. representatives will no longer have the leverage or leadership to shape treaty implementation in a way that is beneficial to the U.S. interests. By “unsigning,” we no longer carry as much weight in the treaty discussion room.
In the long run, it remains to be seen whether the U.S. decision will have any direct or lasting effects on the ATT process or its implementation. For now, it seems the only impact has to undermine United States credibility, leadership, and leverage.