Arms Trade Treaty Negotiations Begin

Tasneem Jamal Conventional Weapons

Kenneth Epps

The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2010 Volume 31 Issue 3

The first United Nations session to negotiate a global treaty to better regulate the international trade in conventional weapons was held in New York, July 12–23. The Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) for the United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty brought together UN member states for two weeks to begin formal negotiations that will culminate in a month-long treaty conference in 2012.

Progress better than expected

The progress made during the first Prepcom – welcomed by delegates and civil society observers alike – suggests that, if supportive states and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) remain vigilant, a strong and effective Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) can emerge from the UN process.

Following a brief opening session to determine the “modalities” of civil society attendance at the PrepCom, the session chairman – Ambassador Roberto Garcia Moritán of Argentina – encouraged states to get straight to work by submitting their views on the “elements” and “principles” that should be included in the treaty. By the middle of the first week, the chair had provided summary documents to the delegates to maintain a working momentum.

The tactic appeared to be effective; most states abandoned the general statements that had plagued earlier ATT-related sessions (especially the “Open-Ended Working Group” proceedings during 2009) in favour of more substantive interventions that helped the chair to construct a useful list of treaty components. The process was repeated with consideration of treaty “goals and objectives.”

The preparatory session made better-than-anticipated use of the time available to develop a framework for the global treaty. The chair’s inclusive approach accumulated all delegate proposals for treaty components in summary documents resulting in, for example, a significant list of principles to inform the preamble text of the treaty.

The deliberations also saw more active participation of some regions and states that had been minimally engaged in earlier sessions of the ATT process. These included the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), which made several detailed interventions throughout the PrepCom period, as well as Trinidad and Tobago, whose head delegate chaired sessions on treaty scope as a “friend of the chair.”

NGO participation limited

The PrepCom was not a fully transparent meeting, however. Civil society groups were surprised and disappointed when the chair announced at the closing of the third day of full participation that, while NGOs would be welcome to attend all remaining formal PrepCom sessions, six “informal” sessions – about half the remaining schedule – would be open only to state delegations.

NGOs did have access to the closed session documentation, including session outputs, and were provided with an opportunity during one formal session to make statements to the assembled delegations. Nevertheless, NGOs expressed concern that the process set a poor transparency standard for negotiations that must consider, among other ATT components, the transparency requirements for the treaty. They also worried that civil society would face more frequent exclusion from future negotiation sessions, particularly as negotiations approach the final treaty text.

The uncertainty suggests that states like Canada, which are supportive of civil society participation, must include NGO advisors in their delegations so that civil society may be represented during negotiations.

Canada’s role

Canada’s contributions during the PrepCom were constructive, even if they were not formally circulated to the assembly as printed statements. (Many other states circulated their statements.) While calling for the ATT to respect the legitimate trade in firearms for hunting, sports shooting, and collecting, Canada emphasized, inter alia, the principles of transparency, harmonization of rules and regulations, and existing obligations of states under international law.

Perhaps most significantly, Canada called for the treaty to define when states “shall not authorize” arms transfers, such as when there are substantial risks that the transfer would provoke or exacerbate armed conflict or would be diverted to illicit channels, including organized crime. This position contrasts with the views of some states, notably the US, that call for treaty text to merely “take into account” transfer criteria and resist language that would stipulate prohibitions.

Outcome documents

The PrepCom produced four documents for state delegations to take to their respective capitals. Ambassador Moritán provided a summary “Chairman’s Draft Paper” of revisions of the treaty elements, principles, goals, and objectives based on the response of the delegates to the chair’s documents circulated earlier. In addition, three “friends of the chair” facilitators provided summaries of the results of informal sessions on scope, parameters, and treaty implementation and application.

In broad terms, the outcome documents referenced most of the components that civil society groups argue are needed to ensure a robust ATT. Some important pieces were weak or absent, however. Missing was a more comprehensive and inclusive range of conventional military equipment to be governed by the treaty. The US, in particular, was clear that it wanted ammunition omitted from the treaty scope.

It is apparent that NGOs and states that support an effective ATT will need to ensure that these early “framework” documents do not circumscribe the full extent of the treaty. Parties to future negotiations will need to both address important weaknesses in the outcome documents and resist attempts to dilute the treaty elements that are currently included.

Looking forward

The two weeks of the July 2010 ATT PrepCom constitute half the formal negotiation time at the UN before the 2012 month-long treaty conference. In 2011 two one-week PrepComs are scheduled during February and July to draft treaty text. This timeframe provides a restricted opportunity to formulate a relatively complex arms control treaty.

In recognition of this limitation, some regional and other multilateral meetings have been planned to continue work outside the UN sessions. Included are an “intersessional” informal meeting of states scheduled for the end of September in Boston and several European Union-sponsored meetings planned for regions of the global South. The intention of these additional meetings is to encourage states to explore common ground for treaty text so that when they assemble at the UN the best use can be made of the limited negotiation time available.

Meanwhile, at the UN and in state capitals civil society groups will continue to press or strong treaty content to effectively address the widespread destruction and abuse arising from irresponsible arms transfers. Among other tasks, the role of NGOs will be to remind states that the negotiation of any ATT is not enough. Only a strong ATT can deliver the common national standards needed to rein in the trade in conventional arms.

Spread the Word