On April 2 the United Nations General Assembly approved by an overwhelming majority vote a historic global Arms Trade Treaty. Only three UN pariah states – Iran, North Korea and Syria – voted against it. The treaty is a milestone victory for the UN. More importantly, it is a new instrument of hope for the millions of people and thousands of communities across the world suffering from or threatened by armed violence. Properly implemented the treaty will indeed “reduce human suffering.”
The treaty enshrines in new international law a set of clear rules for cross-border transfers of weapons and ammunition. It creates binding obligations for governments to assess arms transfers to ensure that weapons will not be used for human rights abuses, terrorism, transnational organized crime or violations of humanitarian law. It requires that governments refuse any transfer of weapons if there is a significant risk that they will be used to violate human rights or commit war crimes.
The treaty was the result of a negotiation process that by United Nations’ standards was remarkably short (less than seven years). It is a once-in-a-generation achievement. The UN has not agreed to a major treaty to control conventional weapons since the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (sometimes called the Inhumane Weapons Treaty). With the ATT, the UN has demonstrated that it still can provide meaningful action on its core mandate: to build peace and prevent war.
There is no doubt that this treaty would not have happened without many years of work and pressure by civil society organizations. Initial proposals for the treaty began almost 20 years ago. When Control Arms – a worldwide coalition that includes Project Ploughshares – delivered a literal “Million Faces” petition to the UN Secretary-General in July 2006, the UN finally was pressed into action. The General Assembly resolution “Towards an Arms Trade Treaty” received overwhelming approval the following December.
Along the way there were many doubts that the treaty would ever emerge. After early opposition by the U.S. Bush Administration, the price of U.S. participation under Obama was treaty agreement by consensus. This proved to be the Achilles heel for negotiations, which collapsed in July 2012 following a call for more time by the United States, Russia and others. The lack of consensus ended talks again last week when Iran, North Korea and Syria made “crystal clear” their objections to the final draft treaty text. Fortunately, earlier civil society pressure to ensure a way out of the deadlock gave several states an option to take the draft treaty text to the General Assembly for the final vote. Indeed, the ATT is a testament to those CSOs– particularly CSO leaders who refused to accept the view that a worthwhile treaty could not be achieved at the UN.
Project Ploughshares is proud to be part of this momentous result. The collaborative and disciplined process, with its many challenges, brought out the best in the hundreds and thousands who participated. Like many other groups, we cooperated with partners in our own country and with colleagues across the globe to press for a treaty of the highest standards, with humanitarian objectives at its core. We believe that we have achieved that goal in this treaty. The CSO community didn’t get everything it asked for – the treaty scope is not comprehensive, for example – but all of us can be justifiably proud of what was achieved. Civil society has helped to establish a framework and future process that will directly tackle the irresponsible and illegal trade in conventional weapons.
Ploughshares also recognizes that, with the treaty agreed, new phases of work have begun. The first step is to bring the treaty into force as soon as possible. As of June 3, UN member states can sign the treaty and follow the necessary procedures in their national systems to ratify it. The treaty cannot enter into force until 50 states have ratified. The Canadian members of the Control Arms coalition, including Project Ploughshares, will be seeking Canada’s early signature and ratification.
When the treaty enters into force the long-term work of implementing treaty provisions begins. Many smaller or poorer states will need to bring their systems up to the standards of the treaty and Canada can provide crucial assistance here. Civil society groups will ramp up their monitoring role to ensure that the treaty is fully implemented and to hold states to account for their arms transfer procedures and decisions. This activity will be a major challenge of indefinite length. But ensuring that the treaty reduces human suffering from the unregulated movement of weapons is an effort to which all involved CSOs gladly dedicate themselves.
Kenneth Epps, Senior Program Officer at Project Ploughshares in Waterloo, attended the final negotiation session of the Arms Trade Treaty at the United Nations in New York, March 18-28.