Global Arms Trade Treaty

In mid-2012, the US walked away from an arms trade treaty in the 11th hour. We assessed what had gone wrong, refined our approach, and helped bring the US around. Just over eight months later, the world’s first international arms trade treaty was passed.

Our objective

Oxfam sought an international arms trade treaty (ATT). A robust and effective ATT would establish international standards to ban all arms transfers that could facilitate genocide, crimes against humanity, and serious war crimes.

Evaluative approach

We did an internal review of data from a variety of sources ­including Google Analytics and webpage and social media ­analysis; findings from campaign team debriefs and review of media indicators; and reports from the campaign manager.

What did we learn?

In 2003, Oxfam, Amnesty International, and the International Action Network on Small Arms launched a global Control Arms Campaign for an arms trade treaty. In 2009, the new Obama administration expressed support for a treaty. When UN member states convened in July 2012 to try to agree to a treaty, Oxfam was optimistic. On July 27, 2012, however, the US almost singlehandedly derailed the process.

We regrouped. Our team had been focused on challenges over language with Department of State officials. But in the end, election-year politics appeared to play a large role in the US’s position. We had not paid enough attention to this possibility because of our focus on the Department of State. So in 2013, we monitored politics more closely.

Treaty opponents had stirred up negative sentiments, and the National Rifle Association instigated a 51-senator ­letter that opposed the treaty and was sent to the White House the last week of July 2012. In reviewing our failure to ­secure a win, we ­recognized that we should have done more to make ­administration support of the treaty politically viable. ­Specifically, we needed to pay additional attention to the Senate and do more to discredit misinformation about the ATT in the media and in meetings with policymakers.

By scrutinizing our setback, we created opportunity. On April 2, 2013, the UN General Assembly adopted the ATT with 154 votes in support and 3 against (Iran, North Korea, and Syria). The US played a key role in helping ensure a positive final vote, and in late ­September, signed the treaty.