Civil Society and (Human) Security: The Case of the UN Arms Trade Treaty

Civil Society and (Human) Security: The Case of the UN Arms Trade Treaty

Raffaele Marchetti, Professor of International Relations, LUISS University, Italy, specially for

On April 2013 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) with its resolution 67/234B. A large majority of 154 member states voted for it. Abstention was decided by China, Russia, and India. Against the Treaty voted DPRK, Iran and Syria.

The treaty is the final outcome of a long process of negotiation that begun in 2006. The new position taken by the US administration after the 2006 legislative elections and later on with the 2008 Obama presidency, a U turn in comparison with that of the previous administrations, has been decisive. In this change, the harsh domestic political competition between the pro-control Brady campaign and the traditional pro-gun National Rifle Association has been important. And yet, another important factor in the development of the process has been the continuous lobbying organized by civil society actors also at the international and transnational level.

The treaty aims to control the trade of armaments. It is based on the core principle of no weapons for abuse. It applies to conventional arms (i.e., battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, and missiles and missile launchers) to which small arms and light weapons are added to make the so-called package of “7+1”. The Treaty sets a number of common standards for the commerce of these conventional armaments with the goal of stopping illegal trade.

The text of the Treaty represents a fine diplomatic balancing among competing principles and interests. It carefully sets an equilibrium between national sovereignty and the right to self defense with the respect of international humanitarian law. But it also balances the political, security, economic and commercial interests of States with the claims from civil society activists; and the lawful ownership of arms for recreational, cultural, historical, and sporting activities with the fight against illicit arm trade.

As put by the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, “the treaty will foster peace and security by putting a stop to destabilizing arms flows to conflict regions. It will prevent human rights abusers and violators of the law of war from being supplied with arms. And it will help keep warlords, pirates, and gangs from acquiring these deadly tools”. Rosy as it might look, this statement still suggests a great expectation about the Treaty. It however first needs to be ratified. As of today, the attention of civil society organizations is all devoted to those fifty national ratifications.

The action by civil society proved once again that nongovernmental actors may play an important role in international affairs. This is by now pretty established. What is most counterintuitive is, however, the fact that civil society organizations are able to have an impact not only on the traditional soft human rights issues, but increasingly also on military ones. Civilian actors are thus gradually proving their ability to have an impact also on hard issues.

In this direction, the first remarkable achievement materialized with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) that led to the mine ban Treaty of 1997, the so-called Ottawa Convention. Following from that, a number of other influential mobilizations have been recently organized by transnational civil society actors on security issues. Just to mention to most significant we may remember the Coalition to Stop the Use and Recruitment of Child Soldiers (CSC) that contributed to the 1989 Convention of the Rights of the Child and especially to the Optional Protocol to the Convention of the Rights of the Child, and the Cluster Munitions Coalition (CMC) that promoted the process towards the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM).

A common thread underpinning all of these mobilizations has been the appeal to the idea of Human Security which has by now become a quasi common point of reference in the international security agenda. Conceptually, the notion of human security moves away from a state-centric understanding of political agency and takes into full consideration individual security and its relative threat. According to Mahbub-ul-Haq, a founder of the Human Development Report, the concept of human security needs to be understood into a multilayered perspective in which difference securities can fit together: from economic security to food security, from health security to environmental security, from personal security to community and political security. The 1994 Human Development Report provided one of the first clear statements of the emerging paradigm of human security centered in the binomial of the freedom from want and freedom from fear (for a recent attempt to create a human security index see

Human security is rapidly becoming a widely spread master frame adopted by an ample spectrum of transnational nongovernmental organizations working in different fields such as economy, agriculture, health or environment. But it is also increasingly deployed by intergovernmental organizations that are slowly transforming the way they interpret key issues in their agenda. A typical case is the changing attitude of FAO towards the emerging concept of food security.

It is in this context that we need to interpret the recent success on the ATT. The original mobilization was promoted by the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) which was founded in 1998 and concentrated on Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW). In 2003 a scale shift occurred and the international campaign Control Arms promoted by IANSA together with OXFAM and Amnesty International was launched with the precise aim of pushing for an ATT. Its first result consisted in the resolution approved in October 2006 by the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), which deals with disarmament and international security issues. Following from that, the campaign continued its transnational mobilization and managed to lobbying an increasing number of states and “penetrate” their political agendas up to the final successful voting in 2013.

The success of the mobilization can be explained with reference to a number of factors, including its ability to mobilize resources and to play skillfully the opportunities offered by the international institutional system. What was also particularly conducive to its affirmation was the specific normative construction of the issue of small arms that the activists managed to broadcast to the relevant stakeholders. The framing constructed by the transnational networks working within this campaign suggested precisely an interpretation of the small arms issue in human security terms. A complex and innovative picture was drawn in which human security was prioritized over national security, stability over armed criminal factions in local conflicts, legality over terrorism, and development over military spending. This way, human security was deployed as a master frame similar to other master frames widely adopted in contemporary global politics such as the master frame of human rights, that of the civil rights, that of imperialism or the anti-Americanism master frame [1].


[1] For further references see Alcalde Villacampa, Javier. (2012) The Control Arms Campaign: A Case Study for the NGO Impact on International Relations after the Cold War. In The ‘Establishment’ Responds. Power, Politics and Protest after 1945, edited by Kathrin Fahlenbrach, Martin Klimke and Joachim Scharloth, pp. 179-96. Oxford: Berghahn Books.