Political Support Grows for a Global Arms Trade Treaty

Tasneem Jamal

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2005 Volume 26 Issue 1

In March, UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw gave the global campaign for an Arms Trade Treaty a major boost when he called for “a legally-binding international treaty on conventional arms exports” and committed the UK government to working with other nations to achieve such a treaty. Straw was speaking to a seminar sponsored by Saferworld, a London-based arms control organization that sits with Project Ploughshares and other civil society groups on the international Steering Committee of the Arms Trade Treaty initiative.

In his speech, the Foreign Secretary proposed six points to guide the work for the treaty. These were:

  • The treaty should be legally binding on state signatories and should be negotiated in the United Nations. It should not be voluntary agreement.
  • The treaty should cover all conventional arms, not just small arms and light weapons.
  • The treaty should be a separate, self-standing initiative. It should build on work done through the UN Programme of Action on small arms and elsewhere, but it should not be governed by those processes.
  • The treaty should be based on core principles that make clear when exports would be unacceptable. Such principles should be drawn from international legal obligations and include criteria preventing arms transfers that would violate human rights, breach humanitarian law, or fuel conflict. The treaty also should contain provisions on arms brokering, transshipment, licensed production, and government-to-government transfers.
  • The treaty needs an effective mechanism for enforcement and monitoring that, at a minimum, obligates signatories to impose criminal penalties as needed, and also to follow up allegations of breaches by the state signatories themselves.
  • The treaty needs a wide range of signatories, including the world’s major arms exporters.

Straw pledged to convene “a meeting of experts” – open to all supportive governments – before the summer to begin work on building a consensus on the technical aspects of a new treaty. He indicated that the work of his government would be open to input from civil society and build on “the widest-possible partnership.” He also promised to put the subject of a treaty on the agenda for the G8 Foreign Ministers’ meeting that he will chair in June.

In the meantime, Project Ploughshares, Oxfam-Quebec, and Oxfam-Canada delivered a letter to the Canadian government in advance of a March meeting to set the agenda of the G8 leaders’ conference in July. In the letter the three organizations – all members of the international “Control Arms” campaign for an ATT – called for “a strong statement from the G8 supporting the development of global principles and a new international instrument” based on the draft Arms Trade Treaty. They noted that the G8 has particular responsibility for ensuring responsible controls since it includes the world’s five largest arms exporters, which together account for 84 per cent of all conventional arms transfers. The letter also noted that arms exports from G8 countries already are subject to the common control principles of one or more of three multilateral agreements: the European Union Code of Conduct for arms exports, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Principles for Conventional Arms Transfers, and the Wassenaar Arrangement Best Practice Guidelines for Exports of Small Arms and Light Weapons. (Canadian arms exports are subject to all three.)

Through its “people-centred” approach to small arms and light weapons (SALW), the Canadian government has recently demonstrated support for national export controls based on common international standards. Canada sponsored a January meeting of governments and civil society experts (including Ploughshares director, Ernie Regehr) in Switzerland that developed core principles for SALW transfers in keeping with the principles of the draft ATT. Canada is committed to taking forward a process with “like-minded” governments that would seek wider support for common export control principles within a wider agenda on small arms. To date, however, Canada has not expressed explicit support for an international Arms Trade Treaty. With prompting from the Canadian public (see the “call for action” on small arms), the UK announcement may inspire the Canadian government to publicly advocate a global treaty on the arms trade.

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