Mark P. Lagon, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Human Rights
The UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) was passed on March 28, 2013, and seeks to regulate and limit trade in arms in circumstances of human rights violations. Unfortunately, it will have minimal effect on the Syrian conflict. Syria's own vote against the treaty, along with Iran's and North Korea's, sounded the death knell for a universally applicable treaty to limit small arms, ammunition, and conventional weapons technology.
However, international treaties on biological and chemical weapons are not irrelevant, because they establish norms (or red lines) known to the Syrian Assad government, even if they do not fully deter defiance of them. Yet regulating a market is more complex than normatively prohibiting a weapons technology. It requires universal application of laws and procedures, which comes after states sign and also ratify the treaty. All treaties then have gaps in implementation of commitments on paper. The Syrian conflict has come too soon for the ATT to play a significant role.
Also, multilateral measures often have unintended consequences. The ATT signatories would probably not want the Syrian armed opposition's more liberal elements to be hamstrung from self-defense, as was the case when a UN Security Council arms embargo in the 1990s limited Bosnian Muslims and Croats from defending themselves against Bosnian Serbs who were armed by the Belgrade government.
Despite delays and uneven application, the ATT remains a useful endeavor to gradually create obstacles to warlords and perpetrators of crimes against humanity who rely upon conventional arms to hold onto their power and terrorize their populations. After most urgently holding perpetrators to account, through the ATT and other means, the world needs to limit the "supply chains of atrocities."