Hunting Down an Arms Trade Treaty

Kenneth Epps Conventional Weapons

Kenneth Epps

Published by Embassy, an Ottawa-based foreign policy weekly

Canada has never been a strong supporter of international efforts to negotiate an effective Arms Trade Treaty. But in mid-July, it reversed its previous lowkey but constructive role at the United Nations ATT preparatory meetings to become a potential treaty spoiler. All indications point to this change of heart arising from the domestic gun lobby’s influence on Canadian foreign policy.

After years of preparation, member states of the United Nations will devote a month in the summer of 2012 to negotiating a global ATT to establish effective standards to regulate the international arms trade. With an estimated 740,000 annual deaths worldwide from armed conflicts and criminal violence, most states agree the treaty cannot come too soon.

Each state controls the transfer of arms across its borders. The current wide range of national standards makes nominally legal trade susceptible to diversion of arms into criminal and other illicit hands. Officially, authorized weapons shipments also are used irresponsibly in breaches of international human rights laws, in ignoring international humanitarian law that applies to armed conflict, and in undermining basic human development.

To work, the ATT must adopt high universal standards that would require many states to improve their arms transfer controls to meet these higher standards. A lowest common denominator approach to the ATT, by locking in low global standards, would actually make matters worse.

No one believed the ATT negotiation process would be easy. UN arms control and disarmament negotiations are notoriously difficult, with many initiatives held hostage by a few states that block progress.

Still, ATT discussions within the UN are well advanced. The UN has held three preparatory committee meetings in anticipation of the 2012 negotiation conference. And there were indications in July that the treaty was gaining wider momentum. For the first time, the five permanent members of the Security Council, which collectively export over four-fifths of all conventional weapons, issued a joint statement in support of the ATT negotiations.

But to the dismay of many observers, Canada’s two statements during the July meeting reversed its prior supportive treaty stance.

The first Canadian statement was in response to the chair’s circulated text on measures to advance treaty implementation.

Instead of supporting the chair’s suggested measures, Canada referred to the text as “too ambitious,” with sections that were “too detailed” or “seeking too much.”

Canada’s statement overlooked the key point that a strong treaty will require a rise in standards across most states. If a wealthy state like Canada, which already has strong arms export controls, argues against the need for relatively minor improvements to its own practice to implement a strong treaty, how can it expect improvements from states with weaker arms transfer controls, many of which have much more limited resources?

Canada’s second intervention, two days later, was even more troublesome. Canada reversed its earlier stance by questioning treaty criteria on socio-economic development and corruption, the removal of which would weaken treaty provisions related to poverty reduction and combatting bribery in many parts of the world.

Finally, Canada suggested particular wording calling for recognition in the treaty preamble “that small arms have certain legitimate civilian uses” and for the exclusion of “sporting and hunting firearms for recreational use” from the scope of the treaty. These suggested changes to the text appear to have been crafted by Canada’s own gun lobby, and echo the position of the US National Rifle Association—presented at the meeting by NRA executive vice-president Wayne LaPierre—that the ATT aims to remove the rights of “America’s 80 million law-abiding gun owners.”

The exemption of sporting and hunting firearms from the treaty was the most damaging—and impractical—of Canada’s suggestions.

At the international level, there is no agreed distinction between civilian and military small arms. Moreover, for many states, all firearms are a threat in the wrong hands.

In its statement opposing Canada’s suggestions, Mexico noted that “different interpretations for military and recreational use of firearms open gaps for subjective interpretation” of the treaty. Fourteen other states also objected to Canada’s proposal, including Australia, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa and Sweden.

Like Canada, these states control the export and import of all firearms, and like Canada, introducing an ATT exemption for a sub-class would contradict their existing controls.

These Canadian suggestions were not only unhelpful. They gave the impression that Canada misunderstands the purpose of the treaty. The ATT will not apply to civilian ownership or domestic transfers of firearms. Rather, it addresses the transfer of firearms and other conventional weapons across national borders.

The two interventions by Canada in the UN ATT meetings follow the recent announcement by Foreign Minister John Baird that Canada will boycott the UN Conference on Disarmament while North Korea holds the temporary presidency. Together, they suggest the Conservative Government is adopting a go-it-alone approach that is less than helpful in international arms control negotiations.

© 2011 The Hill Times Publishing Inc.

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