Eric Davies looks at the Arms Trade Treaty, which will regulate the international trade in conventional arms.

The Treaty

The 27 EU Member States were expected to sign the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) on 3 June 2013.

The Treaty aims to ensure that conventional arms and munitions will not be used in, among other things, genocide, war crimes, human rights abuses, terrorism and violations of humanitarian law.

It is estimated that the arms trade is worth £46 billion each year (€54 billion, $70 billion) and that, worldwide, some 740,000 men, women and children die annually as a result of armed violence, much of which is fuelled by illegal or poorly regulated trade in conventional weapons.


Once ratified, the Treaty will regulate the international trade in conventional weapons, setting standards for their transfer and tackling the illicit arms trade. It will apply to conventional arms and related ammunition, munitions, parts and components in the following categories:

  • battle tanks

  • armoured combat vehicles

  • large-calibre artillery systems

  • combat aircraft

  • attack helicopters

  • warships

  • missiles and missile launchers

  • small arms and light weapons (SALW).

Parties to the ATT will be required to review all arms exports to ensure that the weapons and associated materials concerned are not supplied in violation of arms embargoes, or diverted from the importing or exporting Member States. They must also take steps to prevent conventional weapons finding their way onto the black market. Provisions on record keeping and reporting will aim to ensure transparency in the arms trade.

The purpose of the Treaty was summarised by Commission Vice President Antonio Tajani as being “to contribute to international and regional peace, security and stability by regulating the international trade in conventional arms and eradicating the illicit arms trade”.

EU legislation

Measures covered by the ATT potentially impinge on aspects of the EU's Common Commercial Policy (eg import and export controls) and on provisions concerning the internal market. Ministers have therefore authorised the Commission to negotiate on behalf of the EU to ensure that the Treaty will not prevent Member States from applying existing provisions under a number of acts, including:

  • Council Directive 91/477/EEC on control of the acquisition and possession of weapons

  • Council Directive 93/15/EEC on the harmonisation of the provisions relating to the placing on the market and supervision of explosives for civil uses

  • Directive 2009/43/EC simplifying terms and conditions of transfers of defence-related products within the Community.

It is also made clear that the ATT will not, except under very specific circumstances, impede the free movement of goods, persons, services or capital within the single market.


On 2 April 2013, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the text of the Treaty by 154 votes to 3. Iran, North Korea and Syria opposed the Treaty, and 23 other countries abstained, including China and Russia. UN Member States were invited to sign the Treaty at a ceremony on 3 June 2013. The ATT will enter into force 90 days after it has been ratified by 50 states.

The EU itself cannot sign the Treaty and, as it concerns matters of exclusive EU competence, Member States require the Council’s authorisation before signing it. It is that authorisation that the Commission has formally set out in the form of its “Proposal for a Council Decision authorising Member States to sign, in the interests of the European Union, the Arms Trade Treaty” (COM(2013) 273).

A further proposal, authorising Member States to ratify the ATT, is expected shortly.

Further information

The text of the draft decision, together with brief background information on the ATT, can be found on the Enterprise and Industry pages at Further information is also available on the EU@UN website.

Last reviewed 5 June 2013