100 days before the Arms Trade Treaty talks – the state of play

One hundred days from now, the 193 member states of the United Nations will gather in New York for a month-long negotiating conference to agree the first ever international treaty to regulate the arms trade.

You can help by signing the global Control Arms petition calling on your government to do everything it can to agree a robust, bulletproof Arms Trade Treaty in July 2012.

It has been proven that public pressure works. It was the Control Arms campaign that prompted the start of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) talks at the UN six years ago. Now States have the chance to finally make this treaty a reality. But many crucial questions remain unanswered. Here is a short guide to some of the battle lines we expect to see come July.

Treaty criteria

The criteria are the rules under which states will make decisions on whether or not to authorize an arms transfer. In brief, transfers would not be allowed to states which breach international humanitarian or human rights law; where conflict would be fueled; when there is a risk of corruption or diversion of arms from the intended recipient. The key to the effectiveness of the treaty criteria lies in the language:

  • Supporters of a strong and effective ATT want the text to declare that states ‘shall not’ transfer arms to recipients where there is substantial risk these criteria would be breached.
  • Treaty skeptics want a wording asking states to just ‘take into account’ the criteria – which would give states the option to ignore any criteria they did not wish to apply.

Strong criteria are vital to an effective treaty, and are opposed by treaty skeptics who fear they will be cut off from arms supplies if they cannot meet the global standards set. So far, many States, including Egypt, China, and Cuba, have questioned criteria such as human rights as being “subjective”, and a key player like the US has made it clear that it does not want a Treaty with “shall not” language applying to any criteria beyond respect for UN Charter and UN Security Council embargoes.

Treaty scope

For the Arms Trade Treaty to be effective at preventing atrocities, NGOs and treaty supporters have made it clear that the treaty must regulate the trade of all major weapon systems and armaments - not just those specifically designed for offensive combat operations military arms. This must include small arms and light weapons (SALW), ammunition and equipment, including parts and components, and police and security equipment used for internal repression.

The Chairs Paper does not cover police and security equipment, and especially in light of the events of the Arab Spring, NGOs and supportive states are pushing hard for the inclusion of this vital category of equipment. It does also not cover military data-processing and communication systems, which can divert significant resources for development, help identify, acquire and aim at unlawful targets, and/or spy on civilians, civil society or political opposition and therefore constitute serious violations of civil and political rights.

States’ positions on including ammunition in the scope of the Arms Trade Treaty. Credit: armstreaty.org

Some countries including the US, Iran and India wish to exclude ammunition from the scope of the treaty. However, many states are forcefully arguing that because abundant supplies of ammunition are the single greatest factor in intensifying a conflict and multiplying humanitarian harm, it is vital to include ammunition in the scope of the treaty. 

Also contentious for some sceptics is the inclusion of small arms and light weapons. SALW and their ammunition are precisely the weapons that cause most harm in Africa, and African states (except Egypt and Ethiopia) are united in insisting on their inclusion. 

Treaty implementation and transparency

Treaty supporters are adamant that the treaty needs effective reporting and transparency measures, so that implementation can be properly measured. This would include open and yearly reporting of arms transfers, and review conferences and regular meetings of states parties where contested transfers could be debated. This would entail a secretariat for the Treaty (a so called ‘Implementation Support Unit’) which is sufficiently resourced and has the mandate to consolidate and analyze data from national reports to identify discrepancies, gaps, and potential breaches of the treaty. Such a mechanism would allow effective operation of the treaty and a gradual strengthening of the global norms embodied in the treaty.

While key states and exporters, such as Russia or China, remain free of any transparency obligations be it at national, regional or international level, many sceptics are set against transparency in the arms trade, failing to recognize that transparency in arms control is usually beneficial to the national security of states involved.

Consensus based decision making

In the last preparatory meeting of States on the Arms Trade Treaty at the UN (known as the PrepCom) states agreed that substantive decisions will be taken “by consensus”, echoing, and narrowing, the wording of the UN General Assembly resolution that began the negotiating process (UN64/48) which stipulates that “the United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty will be undertaken in an open and transparent manner, on the basis of consensus, to achieve a strong and robust treaty”.

In brief, what decision-making “by consensus” actually means is neither agreed nor clear – whether decisions must be unanimous (as the US, Russia, Syria and Egypt amongst others would like), or whether an overwhelming majority would be sufficient (as Mexico, Norway, Caribbean states and others would prefer). While both versions of consensus have precedent within the UN system unanimity would be detrimental to this process as it would give any State, including treaty opponents, veto power and likely lead to no treaty or even worse, a very weak one.

It is the position of Oxfam and the Control Arms coalition that agreement by an overwhelming majority gives a better chance of an effective ATT. To what extent states like France, the UK or Germany will be willing to compromise with the likes of US and Egypt on “consensus meaning unanimity” in order to keep them on board until the end remains to be seen.

The presence of NGOs

Some states that oppose a strong ATT – like Pakistan or Egypt – wish to see NGOs excluded from the process altogether. Others, like Mexico or Norway, would like NGOs to be deeply involved. NGO expertise and other support enables smaller states that cannot provide diplomats to cover all working groups for an entire month to participate more fully in the process, by providing the information and analysis they need to do so.

The PrepCom decided that that NGOs will be admitted to some but not all conference bodies. This is relatively good news as NGO participation increases the legitimacy of these ATT negotiations. Decisions made behind closed doors, without allowing effective participation from the organisations that work on the front line, with the people most affected by the irresponsible arms trade, will leave any future Treaty without a solid, informed and accountable foundation. Effective NGO participation is the key to a successful outcome. 

Outcome of the conference

Many states supportive of a robust Arms Trade Treaty are becoming worried about the likelihood of a weak treaty being pushed through in July. A minority of sceptical states are increasingly vocal and potentially disruptive, while some main exporting states seem more concerned about ‘just getting a treaty’ with all their competitors on board than on achieving a strong treaty firmly based on international law that will have support from a majority of states.

This state of play means that supportive states, in partnership with NGOs, must do everything they can to make sure that states do not waste this historical opportunity to finally make an international treaty that will prevent weapons being used to perpetrate atrocities.

We have one shot! In July, progressive states must prevent that the “consensus tyranny” produces a weak treaty that legitimizes the current status quo. You can help by signing the global Control Arms petition calling on your government to do everything it can to agree a robust, bulletproof ATT in July 2012.

If you want to learn more about state’s positions on all the different issues that together will make or break a robust ATT, please visit armstreaty.org 

Read more

Sign the petition and demand a life-saving treaty

Why we need an Arms Trade Treaty: questions & answers 

Anna MacDonald blogs: Laos: The World’s Most Bombed Country

Control Arms campaign

In the UK, please sign OxfamGB's petition to David Cameron

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