An Arms Trade Treaty: within our grasp

Conventional Weapons, News

The final days of the month-long diplomatic conference in New York to negotiate an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) were a rollercoaster ride of tension and emotion. From pronounced concern over a deadlock on Wednesday, to widespread anticipation on Thursday, to general frustration on the final Friday, the feelings of many conference participants – state officials and NGO representatives alike – altered as expected outcomes changed. The concluding day ended with barely a whimper. Fortunately, the inconclusive conference still brings the world within reach of a real and effective treaty.

After weeks of formal and informal statements, debate and negotiation, including five weeks of preparatory committee meetings in the two years before the July conference began, the President of the conference, Ambassador Roberto Garcia Moritán, introduced the first draft treaty text on Tuesday, July 24, during the last week of the conference.

From the perspective of the supporters of a strong treaty, the draft text was a worrisome beginning, but far from a disaster. It represented a tradeoff between treaty scope (the equipment the ATT would cover) and criteria (the rules for national authorization of arms exports).

Treaty scope was weak; many classes of military and security equipment were missing. Of greatest import, particularly for African states, was the exclusion of ammunition, which was covered in a separate provision with limited requirements. But criteria were stronger than anticipated. International human rights law and international humanitarian law were placed at the centre of national export authorization standards. This preserved a core treaty element.

Civil society experts characterized the most significant problems with the text as five loopholes. Building on the image of the five Olympic rings that would soon be seen on electronic media around the world, Control Arms campaigners circulated a handout to delegates that highlighted the five “fixes” needed. Many fixes required only minor text changes, although the political implications were significant. They included adding ammunition to the list of weapons covered by treaty scope, tightening up some language to ensure full adherence to international humanitarian law, and dropping a clause backed by India that would allow defence cooperation agreements to override the treaty.

Following plenary discussions and “informal” sessions closed to NGOs, Ambassador Moritán introduced a second draft of the treaty on Thursday, July 26. To the surprise of many, the text was an improvement on the first draft, although it did not address the three most significant loopholes. Nevertheless, many delegates and NGO representatives were convinced that further improvements could be made in the time remaining.

Plenary discussions continued until 1 o’clock Friday morning, when tired participants left the UN building believing that a treaty text could be agreed when the conference reconvened. Despite the risk that one or more of the “skeptic” states could block a consensus agreement, there was a shared hope that the conference would end in success. Delegates went to bed anticipating agreement later that day.

This anticipatory balloon burst Friday morning when the U.S. delegation announced that negotiations needed more time. Many were surprised because the U.S. had wielded significant influence over the text, including, for example, the controversial ammunition exclusion from the scope of the treaty.

This call for more time was effectively the end of consensus and the conference. When the delay was supported by interventions from Russia and a few others, including Canada, everyone knew the fat lady had sung. The room was filled with a pervasive disbelief that so much work had come so close to success, only to suddenly fail. All that remained was for Ambassador Moritán to gain formal approval for the final draft text to be appended to a brief conference report.

Yet, despite the sudden death of the conference, the Arms Trade Treaty is very much alive. Immediately following the conference closure, Mexico read a joint statement on behalf of 90 states, including Canada, which proclaimed:

We came to New York a month ago to achieve a strong and robust Arms Trade Treaty. We had expected to adopt such a draft Treaty today.… We are disappointed, but we are not discouraged.… We are determined to secure an Arms Trade Treaty as soon as possible. One that would bring about a safer world for the sake of all humanity.

If time had permitted, even more states would have signed this statement. This is only one reason to believe that a meaningful global treaty can be agreed upon soon, quite possibly before the end of 2012. The conference produced a draft text containing the core elements of an effective treaty, which will establish high common standards for conventional arms transfers. The draft has widespread support that could be broadened and deepened by attending to a small number of text amendments.

The international civil society coalition Control Arms is prepared to support and cooperate with all states willing to seize the opportunity. The goal to “secure an Arms Trade Treaty as soon as possible” is tangible. An unprecedented ATT is within our grasp.

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