Q&A: ‘An incredible privilege’

Kenneth Epps Conventional Weapons

The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 34 Issue 2 Summer 2013

Since 1997 Senior Program Officer Kenneth Epps has represented Project Ploughshares in the movement working toward an Arms Trade Treaty. With the historic treaty finally adopted, he reflects on the past, the future, and his personal achievements.

Can you describe for us how you came to work at Project Ploughshares and how you came to work on the Arms Trade Treaty specifically?

I came to Ploughshares in 1986 after five years of work with the Global Community Centre, which was a learner centre on international development issues in Kitchener. I had, through the Global Community Centre, co-operated with Project Ploughshares on a number of occasions, trying to draw linkages between disarmament and development.

I started working with Ploughshares, on contract, compiling data on Canada’s military industry and, specifically, arms exports. That’s the link that eventually got me to the Arms Trade Treaty, because after looking at the Canadian situation it became quickly apparent that other countries, particularly in the north, operated on a similar basis.

Each country had its own rules for exporting weapons. Many of them overlapped, particularly, for example, between Canada and Europe. But there were significant differences. And different standards meant that countries interpreted overseas situations differently and weapons got approved by one country for export that might not be approved by another. So then this idea emerged of a set of global standards.

What brought Project Ploughshares into the international movement for an Arms Trade Treaty?

In 1997 Nobel Peace Laureates, led by Oscar Arias, announced a proposal for a Code of Conduct on International Arms Transfers. That was the first time we came to the issue in a way that expressed our interest in operating with groups outside Canada toward global standards. This coincided with the lead-up to the signing of the Landmines Treaty, in December 1997. So, already there were networks of NGOs emerging, working internationally on conventional disarmament and arms control issues….

In the late 1990s there was also growing interest in the issue of small arms and particularly small arms transfers. We were all becoming more aware of the impact of those transfers on war zones and on urban centres and so on.

There was some informal networking that was beginning to emerge on the conventional side in the late 1990s. In 1998 Project Ploughshares organized an international event in Lake Couchiching, near Orillia, where we brought together people in civil society and some government people, too, who were working on small arms and light weapons issues.

What did Ploughshares’ participation in the movement look like?

We attended all the meetings through the years, possibly all the meetings when it came to actually bringing together people globally….

There was a group that was called, for several years, the Arms Trade Treaty Steering Committee. Ploughshares was a member of that group from the beginning until it eventually evolved into the Control Arms Coalition Steering Board. We are still a member of that group…. Ploughshares hosted a meeting of the Board here [in Waterloo] in 2007. I was representing Ploughshares as a member of the Steering Committee or the Steering Board for all those years. Then I became a co-chair, which was essentially the executive committee of the Board. I was a co-chair for two years, right up until the actual final treaty conference in March of this year. And that’s when I stepped down.

How do you respond to people who dismiss the ATT because it is part of the UN process?

Because it has emerged out of the UN, it will be subject to some of the problems the UN system has. But, in all honesty, I can’t think of a way it could have been done that would have resulted in anything better. And right now we have a framework we can use for decades to come. This is a treaty for the 21st century….

If it takes 20 years to put a treaty together, think of how long it’s going to take until it’s working….

For us, here at Project Ploughshares, it’s an indefinite role. It’s us looking not only at the international situation and how the treaty is developing but even potentially being a part of international assistance. For example, we’ve already done some work in the Caribbean in areas related to small arms and light weapons. It makes sense to continue that work in the context of the ATT, assisting civil society and states themselves to adapt to the treaty or to implement it. On a world scale ATT work is going to be very significant and it’s going to take decades [to implement].

What is the significance of the adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty for you personally?

There are probably two things that, when I reflect on my work at Ploughshares, will jump out as being most significant in the time I’ve spent here. The first is the Landmines Treaty, which was essentially for us, and for me in particular, a five-year process of attaching ourselves to an international campaign calling for a ban on landmines. We pushed for it in a Canadian context, achieving some real success in helping to get on board the Canadian government—which became a world leader on that particular issue—and attending the treaty conference in Ottawa, which was a real boost and adrenalin rush. Seeing all that happen in five years essentially.

The way I reflect on it now—even though of course we were interested in international arms transfer issues before that—really the work on the ATT began after that. So then there was, after the Landmines Treaty, a 15-year period. Three times as long to get to what I would call my second significant result in the time I’ve been at Project Ploughshares, which is the ATT [and] just recently the signing ceremony.

I’m looking on this as an incredible privilege. The likelihood of two major international treaties on conventional arms control occurring in one person’s working career is probably infinitesimal. There have been others, too, we haven’t worked on like the [Convention on] Cluster Munitions; we were in the background of that.

There have been other agreements that have happened, such as agreements on child soldiers and women and peace. These have been important as well. But those two were the treaties where we’ve had direct involvement, where we’ve seen as a result of our work some significant steps, [where] we were part of a process and saw an outcome. It is a great sense of achievement—as I say, I feel privileged. There have got to be many, many people in other areas who’ve done just as much work and not seen a result…. The fact that it happened while I was still here, while I was part of the network that helped produce it and that was still vibrant and alive and in the room, that was another real high.

The people who were cheering in the balcony were basically friends of mine. That’s another privilege. During both processes, landmines and ATT, I’ve had the privilege of meeting and working with some of the most interesting people in the world. And they are literally from around the world. There are not too many endeavours in which you get to enjoy that kind of work.

Interview conducted and edited by Ploughshares Communications and Fundraising Officer Tasneem Jamal.

Spread the Word