How did a global campaign bring about a UN Arms Trade Treaty?

August 6, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

The last (but most definitely not least) of the case studies in active citizenship that I have been blogging about over the last couple of months is the inspiring global campaign that arms_trade_treatyled to the agreement (and impending ratification) of a UN Arms Trade Treaty. It is co-authored with Anna Macdonald, one of the key activists in the campaign. Full case study is here – comments welcome: ATT Case Study final draft July 2014 v2.

In October 2003, Oxfam, together with Amnesty International, the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) and many other organisations across the world launched the Control Arms campaign.

The aim of the campaign was to reduce armed violence and conflict through global controls on the arms trade, and the primary objective was an international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

In April 2013, a decade of campaigning paid off as the Arms Trade Treaty, the world’s first global treaty to regulate the transfer of conventional arms and ammunition, was adopted by overwhelming majority at the UN in New York, and opened for signature two months later. As of June 2014, the ATT looks set to enter into force around a year after it opened for signature, which will make it one of the fastest ever multilateral treaties to become international law.


Oxfam’s engagement on arms control dates back to advocacy to control arms exports from Europe to South Africa in the early eighties, and the landmines campaign of the 90s. In the late 90s NGOs in Europe, including Oxfam, Amnesty International and Saferworld worked together to successfully advocate for a review of Europe’s arms exports, resulting in the EU Common Position on arms exports. ATT2

By the early 2000s, the political environment was propitious. The adoption of the Mine Ban Treaty in 1997 had created confidence that campaigning could achieve change within the arms sector, and many grassroots organisations around the world saw conflict and armed violence as the next big issue.

What Happened?

The ATT campaign developed in three main stages:

1. Winning support for the idea of an ATT 2003-2006: Developing champion governments; building an international popular campaign; growing the coalition and getting the ATT onto as many political agendas as possible.

2. Work at the UN 2006-2009: This led to a greater focus on UN advocacy and focus on global and regional-level meetings.

3. Formal UN negotiations 2009-2013: The establishment of a final timeline for treaty negotiations led to a resurgence of campaigning and advocacy work in capitals and at the regional level, with an increased presence in New York at UN meetings.

Theory of Change

Power Analysis: While there were a handful of governments sympathetic from the outset, and some spillover momentum from the Mine Ban and Cluster Munitions Treaties, there were also strong opponents to the ATT. The USA was the only public “no” voting government at the UN until 2009, when the Obama administration changed its stance, but Russia, China and many Middle East states were also significant opponents. The campaign followed and responded to the shifting tides of government positions through regular exercises in stakeholder mapping. Beyond governments, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and various associated pro-gun groups, predominantly from the US, campaigned against the ATT.

Change Strategy: When the campaign launched in 2003, only 3 governments (Mali, Costa Rica and Cambodia) would publicly associate themselves with the call for an ATT3Arms Trade Treaty. The rest insisted that this ambition was ‘too idealistic”, “unrealistic” and pitted against too many vested interests.

The initial strategy therefore was to try and get one government in each region to champion the ATT, the theory being that this would gradually build global support for the treaty, as the countries around each regional champion gradually followed their lead in a snowball effect.

So the early focus was on getting the concept of an ATT onto the political radar in key countries, often achieved by first getting widespread popular support through the “Million Faces” petition and other campaigning activities. By mid-2005, the snowball was rolling: at the Biennial meeting of the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms, 55 states included a positive reference to the need for an ATT.

As work progressed at the UN, power analysis became increasingly sophisticated. States were categorised by their support not only for the ATT overall, but for the inclusion of individual elements within the treaty (e.g. human rights or sustainable development). By 2006 campaign planning involved regularly updating complex spread-sheets colour coded into “champions”, “progressive supporters”, “swingers”, “undecided” and “sceptics”. Put simply the strategy was to work with the champion governments, try to move more of the mainstream and swingers into this category, and to isolate or undermine the arguments of the sceptics.

A key challenge was the constant battle to prevent the content of treaty being diluted. Throughout the process the big tension was between the universalists, who argued that the most important aspect was to keep sceptics such as Russia and China on board and were willing to make concessions in treaty content to do so, and governments like Norway and Mexico plus civil society who argued for a stronger treaty. Major successes for the progressive groups included the inclusion of ammunition within the provisions of the Treaty, relatively strong assessment criteria around international human rights and humanitarian law and references to gender-based violence. Weaknesses included not securing a completely comprehensive scope, and the loss of an explicit reference to sustainable development.

Coalitions and Alliances

Control Arms logo_enThe campaign developed a wide range of potential (and sometimes surprising) allies. These included the defence industry, companies who saw themselves as the ‘responsible end’ of the arms industry, and a number of retired generals and ex war correspondents. The campaign also worked with financial investors, survivor organizations (who were always included on UN delegations) and sympathetic fragments of the UN system. While the campaign worked with a few individual faith leaders, (e.g. Desmond Tutu), and the Pope came out in support in 2010, it did not engage with faith organizations as institutions.

Course Corrections: What changed along the way?

The campaign initially focussed on mass public awareness to get the issue on the agenda, but then moved into more specialist areas. The balance of insider-outsider shifted over time. At the beginning it was all outsider. Then there was a phase from 2008-11, where focus became much more weighted to insider, with many campaigners working closely with governments as the UN process got under way. By the time of the final negotiations, a balance of approaches had been restored.

Wider lessons

Change takes time: Tackling underlying causes and/or aiming for a major international agreement doesn’t happen in a neat 3 year business cycle. It is going to need at least a decade of focus and follow-through.

Know your stuff: The coalition published over 50 reports in 10 years on many different aspects of the ATT. Credible research helped coalition members to become seen as valuable issue-experts for governments and the UN, and the research generated quality media coverage and briefings in a multitude of fora all over the world.

Know your people: Getting to know and build relationships with the active officials and politicians in key governments was essential. It’s about knowing the individuals who are prepared to go the extra mile, to work with you, and with whom you can build a real relationship of trust.

Know your system: Equally important was constant power analysis, knowing which groups of governments were the most likely to be progressive, and how different alliances could be developed to lever pressure at different times.

Know your process: Especially in a labyrinthine process like a UN negotiation, it is as important to have process experts as issue policy experts. The use of the “consensus rule” thwarts many a UN process, but can be overcome with good knowledge of procedure and tactics.

To read or comment on previously blogged case studies in this series, go to Community Forestry Rights in IndiaCampaigning on the US Deepwater Horizon oilspillChanging hearts and minds on Violence Against Women in South Asia, promoting Women’s Leadership in Pakistan and NepalLabour Rights in Indonesia, and Community Protection Committees in DRC