NATO’s role in conventional arms control

  • Last updated: 19 Aug. 2014 09:47

NATO attaches great importance to conventional arms control and provides an essential consultative and decision-making forum for its members on all aspects of arms control and disarmament.

The 2010 Strategic Concept of the Alliance reiterates the major role of arms control in achieving security objectives, the continued importance of harmonising defence and arms control policies and objectives and NATO’s commitment to the development of future arms control agreements.

One of the most significant achievements in this sphere is the landmark 1990 Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). This Treaty is referred to as a "cornerstone of European security" and imposes for the first time in European history legal and verifiable limits on the force structure of its 30 States Parties which stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains. Russia “suspended” its participation in the Treaty in December 2007.

NATO also supports the implementation of a variety of confidence and security-building measures. These include the Vienna Document, a politically binding agreement designed to promote mutual trust and transparency about a state’s military forces and activities, and the Open Skies Treaty, which is legally binding and allows for unarmed aerial observation flights over a country’s territory.

Although not all member states of the Alliance are a party to the Ottawa Convention on anti-personnel mines, all members of the Alliance fully support its humanitarian demining goals. Moreover, the Alliance assists partner countries in the destruction of surplus stocks of mines, arms and munitions through a NATO/Partnership Trust Fund mechanism.

The first decade of the new millennium has also witnessed two other major developments in the field of conventional arms control: the Convention on Cluster Munitions and the UN process “Towards an Arms Trade Treaty”. These initiatives mark the continuing importance and relevance of conventional arms control today for peace and security.

  • Conventional arms control agreements

    The Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty

    Since the CFE Treaty’s entry into force in 1992, the destruction of over 100,000 pieces of treaty-limited equipment (tanks, armoured personnel carriers, artillery, attack helicopters and combat aircraft) has been verified and almost 6,000 on-site inspections have been conducted, thereby reaching its objective of creating balance and mitigating the possibility of surprise conventional attacks within its area of application.

    At the first CFE Review Conference in 1996, negotiations began to adapt the CFE Treaty to reflect the realities of the post-Cold War era. This process was completed in conjunction with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Summit in Istanbul in 1999. States Parties also agreed to additional commitments, called the Istanbul Commitments. Although the Adapted CFE (ACFE) Treaty went far in adjusting the Treaty to a new security environment, it was not ratified by Allied countries because of the failure of Russia to fully meet commitments regarding withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgia and the Republic of Moldova, on which Allies’ agreement to the adapted Treaty was based.

    At NATO summits and ministerial meetings since 2000, the Allies have reiterated their commitment to the CFE Treaty and have reaffirmed their readiness and commitment to ratify the Adapted Treaty. However, during the third CFE Review Conference, in June 2006, Russia expressed its concerns regarding ratification of the adapted CFE Treaty and claimed that even the ACFE was outdated.

    After the June 2007 Extraordinary Conference of the States Parties to the CFE Treaty, the Russian president signed legislation on 14 July 2007 to unilaterally “suspend” its legal obligations under the CFE Treaty as of 12 December 2007. In response to these events, NATO offered a set of constructive and forward-looking actions.

    In 2008 and 2009, consultations were held between the United States on behalf of the Alliance and Russia, but with limited development. Further efforts to resolve the impasse were pursued on the basis of the United States’ initiative, which sought an agreement on a framework for negotiations on a modernised CFE Treaty, in consultations at 36 between all CFE States Parties and NATO member states not parties to the CFE Treaty. The process stalled in the autumn of 2011 because of the lack of agreement among parties.

    In a situation where no agreement could be reached to overcome the impasse, towards the end of November 2011, NATO CFE Allies announced their decisions to cease implementing certain CFE obligations vis-à-vis Russia, while still continuing to implement fully their obligations with respect to all other CFE States Parties. However, in the December 2011 foreign ministerial communiqué, Allies stated that these decisions were fully reversible should the Russian Federation return to full implementation.

    At the Chicago Summit in May 2012, Allies reiterated their commitment to conventional arms control and expressed determination to preserve, strengthen and modernise the conventional arms control regime in Europe, based on key principles and commitments.

    The Vienna Document

    Similarly, under the Vienna Document, thousands of inspections and evaluation visits have been conducted as well as airbase visits and visits to military facilities; also new types of armament and equipment have been demonstrated to the participating states of the Vienna Document. With an aim to reflect the contemporary security policy environment an updated version of the Vienna Document known as the Vienna Document 2011 was approved by the OSCE in December 2011.

    The Open Skies Treaty

    Under the Open Skies Treaty, more than 850 observation missions have been conducted since the Treaty’s entry into force in January 2002. Aerial photography and other material from observation missions provide transparency and support verification activities carried out on the ground under other treaties. This Treaty provides for extensive cooperation regarding the use of aircraft and their sensors, thereby adding to openness and confidence. Following long lasting negotiations the states parties to the Open Skies Treaty agreed, at the 2010 review conference, to allow the use of digital sensors in the future. However, these have to undergo a certification process, as foreseen by the Open Skies Treaty. This decision secures the future relevance of the Treaty, adds to its efficiency and reduces implementation costs.

    The UN Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) in All Its Aspects

    The proliferation of small arms and light weapons (SALW) not only feeds global terrorist activities, but also encourages violence, thus affecting local populations and preventing constructive development and economic activities.

    SALW proliferation needs to be addressed as broadly as possible and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) is a well-suited framework. The EAPC Ad Hoc Working Group on SALW and Mine Action contributes to international efforts to address the illicit trade in SALW and encourages efforts to fully implement international regulations and standards, including the United Nations Programme of Action (UN PoA).

    The UN PoA was adopted in July 2001 by nearly 150 countries, including all NATO member countries and contains concrete recommendations for improving national legislation and controls over illicit small arms, fostering regional cooperation and promoting international assistance and cooperation on the issue.  It was developed and agreed as a result of the growing realisation that most present-day conflicts are fought with illicit small arms and light weapons, and that their widespread availability has a negative impact on international peace and security, facilitates violations of international humanitarian law and human rights, and hampers economic and social development. It includes measures at the national, regional and global levels, in the areas of legislation, destruction of weapons that were confiscated, seized, or collected, as well as international cooperation and assistance to strengthen the ability of states in identifying and tracing illicit arms and light weapons. Every two years, the United Nations (UN) holds the Biennial Meeting of States to Consider the Implementation of the Programme of Action (BMS), to which NATO participates. National delegations from all member states gather every six years to review the progress made in the implementation of the Programme of Action. The International Staff participated in this review on behalf of the EAPC in August 2012.

    Mine action

    The EAPC Ad Hoc Working Group on SALW and Mine Action also supports mine action efforts through Trust Fund projects and information-sharing. In particular, its guest speaker programme provides an opportunity for mine action experts to share their expertise with the Group. These speakers originate from national mine action centres, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and international organisations and have included high-profile experts, such as Nobel Laureate Ms Jody Williams, Director of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. The Working Group has broadened its focus to also incorporate issues related to explosive remnants of war and cluster munitions onto its agenda.

    The Convention on Cluster Munitions

    The Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) prohibits all use, stockpiling, production and transfer of cluster munitions. Separate articles in the Convention concern assistance to victims, clearance of contaminated areas and destruction of stockpiles. It became a legally binding international instrument when it entered into force on 1 August 2010.

    The Arms Trade Treaty

    In July 2012, UN member states gathered in New York to negotiate an arms trade treaty that would establish high common standards for international trade in conventional arms. Despite the efforts put forth by delegations during the four weeks of negotiations, the Conference could not reach agreement on a treaty text. Governments are now considering the next steps to conclude the negotiations in the not-so-distant future. This Treaty is intended to establish common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms. NATO stands ready to support the Arms Trade Treaty process as appropriate.

    NATO/Partnership Trust Fund projects

    The NATO/Partnership Trust Fund mechanism was originally established in 2000 to assist partner countries with the safe destruction of stocks of anti-personnel land mines. It was later extended to include the destruction of surplus munitions, unexploded ordnance and small arms and light weapons, and assisting partner countries in managing the consequences of defence reform. So far, NATO has contributed to the destruction of 4.5 million landmines, 31,000 tonnes of various munitions, 2 million hand grenades, 15.5 million cluster sub munitions, 1,470 man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS), and 615,000 SALW alongside 162 million rounds of SALW ammunition.

    Trust Fund projects are initiated by a NATO member or partner country and funded by voluntary contributions from individual Allies, partners, contact countries, and organisations. A web-based information-sharing platform allows donors and recipient countries to share information about ongoing and potential projects.

  • NATO bodies involved in conventional arms control

    There are a number of NATO bodies that provide a forum to discuss and take forward arms control issues. Arms control policy is determined within the deliberations of the High-Level Task Force (HLTF) on Conventional Arms Control, that was established for CFE and confidence- and security-building measures (CSBMs). 

    Implementation and verification of arms control agreements fall under the purview of the Verification Coordinating Committee (VCC), including overseeing a designated CFE verification database.

    The NATO-Russia Council (NRC) also has a working group for Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation. However, work of the NRC has been suspended since spring 2014 due to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

    Other fora include the Political Partnerships Committee and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council Ad Hoc Working Group on Small Arms and Light Weapons.

    The NATO School Oberammergau (Germany) conducts 12 courses a year in the fields of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. Most of them are also open to NATO’s partners across the globe.