03 July 2023

How to make states accountable for their arms transfers

Conventional arms are the most widely used arms in modern conflict, yet they remain the least regulated. In her PhD thesis, Dawn Lui set out to make sure that conventional arms do not contribute to human suffering, and to find ways to hold states accountable for their arms transfers that do so. 

How did you come to choose your research topic?

Conventional arms are the most widely used arms in modern conflict, yet they remain the least regulated, unlike stringent treaty regimes prohibiting the transfer of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) or indiscriminate weapons. This was the starting point for my research, as I could not understand why there was so little focus on the regulation of conventional arms, despite its huge humanitarian and human rights impacts. I wanted to make sure that conventional arms do not contribute to human suffering, and to find ways to hold states accountable for their arms transfers that do so. 

What were your research questions and what methodology did you use?

Can states sell arms to anybody who can pay for them? What, if any, are the rules governing the international arms trade? Can states be held accountable for their arms exports to other states who use these arms to commit war crimes and to violate their human rights obligations, and if so, how? These were some of the initial questions that guided my research throughout the years. 

To answer them, I drew upon international instruments and regional conventions, as well as looked at the policies and practices of major arms exporting states. Databases curated by multilateral organisations and independent research organisations were important resources for qualitative and quantitative data on international arms transfers. The goal of my research was to present an up-to-date and systematic analysis of the obligations of states under existing international arms transfer law, which I hope will become a useful resource for academics and practitioners alike. 

My thesis is predominantly doctrinal, for the lack of research on arms transfer law as a distinct branch of arms law warranted a systematic exposition of the legally binding rules governing the global conventional arms trade. These rules fall into three broad categories: arms embargoes, regional conventions, and multilateral treaties. For each set of rules, I first identified the types of conventional arms covered and examined the scope of transfer prohibition, then proceeded to conduct a comparative analysis of subsequent arms transfers by major exporting states party according to each set of rules and their respective domestic accountability mechanisms. 

What are your major findings?

My PhD introduces the novel concept of arms transfer law, which encapsulates the body of rules that regulate the international arms trade. I find that arms transfer law has become an individual branch of weapons law, for it has the two distinct goals of maintaining international peace and security and preventing human suffering. Translated into practice, arms transfer law, in other words, imposes restrictions on when and to whom states can sell weapons. Arms transfer law is distinctive in that it inherently incorporates cross-cutting issues (such as human rights, violence against women, and sustainable development) in a field which is traditionally dominated by peace and security topics.

The comparative analysis of major arms exporting states’ practice was crucial in identifying the gaps in implementation. I looked at United Nations (UN) and European Union (EU) arms embargoes and show that while the language adopted in early UN Security Council arms embargoes varied widely, it has become increasingly uniform. Similarly, early EU restrictions were also vague but became more harmonised after a clear set of guidelines were adopted. 

The regional conventions in sub-Saharan Africa focus mostly on small arms and light weapons and are reflective of the 2001 UN Firearms Protocol. One of the main challenges I found is that while the law is there, the patchwork of colonial and postcolonial legislation means that quite often the rules are interpreted rather creatively. One of the key takeaways is also that local civil society organisations and thinktanks are essential to ensuring accountability and oversight of arms exporting states. In contrast to sub-Saharan Africa, the EU has a lot more publicly accessible data on its arms exports. I show that the EU Common Position on arms exports represented a paradigm shift as to how states view the arms trade and its actors. What this tells us is that arms exporting states acknowledge that they have a “special responsibility” to make sure that their arms transfers do not undermine international peace and security and contribute to human suffering. 

The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) also featured heavily in my thesis, for it is the first global, legally binding international agreement regulating the transfer of conventional arms. It is an important milestone, as it explicitly draws linkages between the conventional arms trade and the existence of human suffering. I demonstrate that the ATT encapsulates the two-pronged goal of arms transfer law, and that it places the responsibility of assessing the potential negative consequences of the arms transferred on the exporting state. 

My research shows that the reason conventional arms continue to be sold to various states and actors that are involved in armed conflicts and commit human rights abuses is due not only to the gaps in implementation, but also to the lack of consequences for states that openly violate their obligations under international arms transfer law. In order to address the dual challenge of universal implementation and domestic accountability, I conclude by arguing that not only are strong domestic oversight mechanisms essential, but also that non-state actors have an important role to play in the effort towards ensuring universal implementation and domestic accountability of states under arms transfer law.

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Dawn Lui defended her PhD thesis in International Law in December 2022. Professor Nico Krisch presided over the committee, which included Professor Andrew Clapham, Thesis Director, and Associate Professor James D. Fry, Faculty of Law, The University of Hong Kong.

How to cite the PhD thesis:
Lui, Dawn. “International Arms Transfer Law: Implementation and Accountability.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2023.
The thesis is embargoed until March 2026. For access, please contact Dawn Lui at

Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: Juliya Shangarey/