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Arms Trade Treaty Talks Call a Time-Out


Control Arms Coalition at the Arms Trade Treaty talks
Campaigners from the Control Arms Coalition, a nonprofit group, at the United Nations in New York during the Arms Trade Treaty conference held throughout July 2012. ANDREW KELLY/CONTROL ARMS COALITION

Good things take time. Evidently, 10 years of advocacy efforts led by a group of Nobel laureates and an international nongovernmental organization campaign, five years of consultations and preparatory work and a month of negotiations at the United Nations in New York in July wasn’t quite enough time for the 193 members of the United Nations to finalize the long-anticipated Arms Trade Treaty, which needed a consensus to pass and would elaborate common international standards for the transfer of conventional arms.

That task is likely to be consigned now to the UN’s Disarmament and National Security Committee and General Assembly meetings later this year, which could continue negotiations, adopt a consensus text agreed on in previous informal discussions or simply agree to continue formal negotiations in 2013. The draft text emanating from the July conference is expected to be the starting point for further discussions.

The Arms Trade Treaty has admirable objectives — to establish the highest standards for regulating the international trade in conventional weapons and to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit transfer of conventional arms and their sale to illicit markets and unauthorized users. Such measures would undoubtedly enhance human security and aid development, as well as contribute to international and regional peace and security and stability.

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The treaty is based on humanitarian principles, yet unlike the highly successful conventional arms treaties covering antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions, it is not, and cannot be, a disarmament treaty. And there’s the rub. The inherent tensions between the major countries exporting and importing small arms and light weapons and other conventional weapons on the one hand, and those eyeing the prize of major reductions in the number of civilians killed by armed violence around the world on the other hand, watched the treaty’s goal oscillate between humanitarianism and commodity trade regulation as the negotiating sessions played out.

Treaty negotiation is akin to herding cats, and each concession made reluctantly by those who desire strong international standards weakens an agreement’s effectiveness. So it was remarkable that the Arms Trade Treaty negotiations had progressed as far as they did by July 27, given the countries’ differing views on its scope and requirements and the pesky consensus decision-making rule. In fact, there was tantalizing hope that the nations could overcome their differences in a dash to the finish line during the conference’s final 24 hours — before Cuba, North Korea, the United States and Venezuela asked for an extension.

The president at the monthlong event, Roberto García Moritán, an ambassador from Argentina, circulated a draft text on July 26 that more than 90 countries, a vast majority of them actively participating in the conference, endorsed in a joint statement the next day as the basis for continuing negotiations. Nongovernmental organizations acknowledge that the draft goes far in tackling the problem of the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons and in preventing conventional arms transfers when they could be used in violation of international humanitarian or human rights law.

The draft text also requires states to consider whether conventional arms transfers may be used to commit violence against women and children as part of their national assessment of proposed exports; brokering is addressed, too, albeit limply.

Some thorny problems, however, remain. Nongovernmental organizations are critical that states may each apply the provisions concerning national assessment and authorization of export requests differently, based on their own views of what may be a threat to international peace and security, which could undermine the treaty’s key objectives. The organizations are also disappointed that participants could not agree on including ammunition as a category of regulated conventional arms. The draft also proposes rather generic national implementation clauses, which call on states to take “all appropriate legislative and administrative measures necessary” to realize the treaty’s objectives.

While such a clause used to be fairly standard in a treaty, it does not specify any minimum requirements, not even an obligation to adopt penal measures, which is now commonplace, leaving states to decide  on their own what  steps they will take in this regard. Track records of nations carrying out such formulations in other weapons treaties have proved to be patchy, slow and ineffectual.

On balance, the glass is half full. As a vast swath of the countries declared in the July 27 joint statement to the conference, they were “determined to secure an Arms Trade Treaty as soon as possible . . .  that would bring about a safer world for the sake of humanity.” When the countries return to the negotiating table, we have reason to hope they will succeed.

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This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Angela Woodward is a program director at the London-based Verification Research, Training and Information Centre (Vertic), a nonprofit group that advocates for monitoring of international agreements. At Vertic, she is manager of the national implementation measures program, focusing on the legal aspects of arms control and disarmament treaty implementation, monitoring and verification. Woodward joined Vertic in 1999, where she has held numerous posts. She has also served on the New Zealand Public Advisory Committee on Disarmament and Arms Control since 2011 and was a lecturer in the political science department at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand from 2009 to 2011. Woodward was an adviser to the chair of the UN Group of Governmental Experts on Verification in All Its Aspects in 2006; and was the legal coordinator for the European Union Joint Action on the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (2006/184/CFSP) from 2006-2007. Woodward holds a master of laws in public international law (with distinction) and a postgraduate certificate in higher education from the London School of Economics and Political Science, University of London; as well as a bachelor’s degree (with honors) in political science and an undergraduate law degree from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. She lives in New Zealand.

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