CARICOM and the Arms Trade Treaty: Toward an effective convention

Kenneth Epps Conventional Weapons

Kenneth Epps


The negotiation of an international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) has become a UN process of “high importance” for the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). It is not difficult to see why. The Caribbean subregion is severely impacted by the irresponsible and illicit proliferation and transfer of small arms and light weapons (SALW) and associated ammunition. Per capita murder rates in the Caribbean are among the highest in the world and 70 per cent of murders in the region involve small arms. Hence, CARICOM considers the development of a comprehensive legally and globally binding ATT regulating the international trade in conventional arms and based on the highest possible international standards, as an unavoidable priority.

The interlinked problems of small arms proliferation, drug trafficking, and other criminal activity have been a longstanding and growing concern of the governments of the subregion. In 2002 the CARICOM Regional Taskforce on Crime and Security released an influential report that led to the creation of the Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS) that, among other responsibilities, was appointed the contact point on small arms issues for the subregion. The report contains several recommendations with regard to the threats of illegal firearms, many of which are relevant to the provisions of an Arms Trade Treaty. (See Annex B.)

The Caribbean hosts no arms suppliers and imports relatively modest volumes of conventional weapons, yet it bears more than its share of the negative consequences of the arms trade. In response, CARICOM has called for collaborative international action, particularly by supplier states:

We believe that, while national responsibility is important in efforts to address the illicit trade, the fact that in the Caribbean the problem is largely externally imposed means that action at the international level and enhanced international cooperation and assistance are crucial. Those States that manufacture arms and engage in their large-scale trade are morally and ethically obliged to assume greater responsibility for the consequences of this trade and play a much larger role than they currently do.

With the effects of small arms proliferation in the subregion growing daily, CARICOM statements have emphasized the urgency of improved regulation of international arms transfers based on common standards. As Ambassador Sealy of Trinidad and Tobago said to the UN in 2006:

Given the widespread death, destruction and political destabilization caused by small arms and light weapons, CARICOM Member States are of the firm opinion that there is an urgent need for strict transfer controls which would contribute to political stability and to peace and security in countries throughout the world.

An Arms Trade Treaty is needed especially to reduce and prevent the persistent phenomenon of guns moving from legal into illegal avenues of trade. A CARICOM statement to the UN in 2010 noted:

We believed, and still do believe, in [an Arms Trade Treaty’s] potential value as an instrument that would have the effect of closing the loopholes through which weapons slip from the legal trade into the illicit market and cause the ugly consequences in which we live on a daily basis.

CARICOM is committed to treaty negotiations. The July 2011 CARICOM Declaration on Small Arms and Light Weapons includes a subregional commitment to intensify and sustain engagement in international efforts to negotiate a legally binding ATT. Indeed, CARICOM has been consistently and actively engaged in the UN process “Towards an Arms Trade Treaty.” All CARICOM members voted in support of the December 2006 UN General Assembly resolution that set the process in motion. Since then CARICOM states have consistently participated in the many stages of the process—from submitting their views on the feasibility, scope, and parameters of a treaty in 2007, along with an unprecedented number of states, to regular interventions during the 2010 and 2011 meetings of the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) for the treaty negotiation conference scheduled for 2012. At least one CARICOM member state has provided formal support to the Chairman of the ATT process by acting as a “facilitator” during PrepCom sessions.

This active engagement has included dedicated attention in sessions outside the formal UN process.
CARICOM member states attended an informal “intersessional” meeting of states and experts at Boston College in the U.S. in September 2010. They also held two preparatory subregional workshops for ATT negotiations in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. These workshops, in July 2010 and January 2011, served to brief state officials and civil society representatives from the subregion on the treaty process and provided opportunities for CARICOM and its members to develop common positions on treaty negotiations.

In the period up to and including the ATT conference in mid-2012, CARICOM and its member states will need to press for robust treaty provisions if the treaty is to adequately respond to the dire security needs of the subregion. This briefing paper is intended to support the engaged and constructive CARICOM approach to Arms Trade Treaty negotiations.

The paper is composed of three parts. Part One explores the subregional context for an ATT, in particular legal imports of conventional weapons by the CARICOM member states. The open source data on these imports is incomplete. Significant reporting gaps and varying methodologies among sources mean that it is not possible to detail all arms transfers in the subregion. Nevertheless, by compiling the reported data on recent imports of conventional weapons by CARICOM member states, the opening section of the paper can provide a preliminary sketch of the trade that an ATT will assist states to better control. The public picture reinforces the prevalent view that SALW transfers are the most significant category of conventional weapons transfers in the Caribbean. This is not to say that CARICOM state imports are limited to small arms; ample evidence exists of shipments of conventional weapons outside this category.  

The second part of the paper reviews provisions of existing multilateral agreements to which CARICOM members are party, which may help to shape the commitments and standards that CARICOM states would expect from an effective ATT. These multilateral agreements are legally or politically binding and regional or global in scope. The relevant provisions range from a call for adequate laws, regulations, and procedures to exercise control over weapons transfers, as defined in the global 2001 UN Programme of Action on small arms (PoA), to the legal requirements of the hemispheric Organization of American States (OAS) Firearms Convention (CIFTA), including a significant array of model legislation that could well assist in implementing an effective ATT. The point here is that many agreements to which CARICOM states are signatories are important potential sources of provisions for an ATT. At a minimum these should represent a baseline for the standards expected from a robust treaty.

The third section of the paper discusses aspects of an Arms Trade Treaty that are demonstrably relevant to the Caribbean. While not exhaustive, this discussion points to important elements/features that CARICOM members themselves have determined to be necessary to a treaty process. CARICOM statements have emphasized, for example, that the scope of an ATT must include SALW and their ammunition. To be effective, the treaty also must prevent the diversion of weapons to illicit markets, which is a persistent problem in the Caribbean. Among other important requirements treaty provisions should require adequate transparency measures.

The conclusion identifies ways to strengthen a CARICOM approach in the final stages of ATT negotiations. Because CARICOM states do not manufacture weapons and import relatively small volumes, they are minor players in the international trade. Moreover, the 14 member states of CARICOM represent only seven per cent of the membership of the United Nations. Nevertheless, motivated by the profound and tragic consequences of an irresponsible weapons trade, CARICOM members have so far wielded an influence in the ATT process that is significantly greater than their numbers would suggest. CARICOM should endeavour to maintain and expand this influence. Indeed, CARICOM and its member states could play an active and significant role in achieving a comprehensive and effective Arms Trade Treaty.

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