Nobody ever believed that establishing an international Arms Trade Treaty would be uncomplicated. Discussions taking place this month will determine the treaty’s future through a vote in the United Nations General Assembly next week.
The treaty’s draft text was nearly adopted in July by UN member states, but those talks came to an abrupt halt on the final day, when the United States demanded “more time” to conclude a deal. The talks this month are part of the General Assembly’s First Committee, focused on disarmament and international security, held through Nov. 7. That is when countries will decide whether the treaty, which establishes global rules on the trade of all conventional weapons, from tanks and fighter jets to small arms and light weapons, will carry on with further negotiations in March 2013.
The hope is that only one more round of talks will take place. The wording in the draft resolution refers to the March talks as the “final conference” to ensure that negotiations do not continue indefinitely. That could happen, given the highly sensitive nature of the agreement and that talks on the pact have been going on since at least 2006.
Since July, some countries have been informally discussing how to keep the treaty process moving. The governments of Argentina, Australia, Britain, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan and Kenya, who together wrote the 2009 resolution that started negotiations, have again been leading the process at the General Assembly this year. This geographically diverse group has held numerous consultations to convince other countries to go forward.
Most important, the current resolution under debate proposes basing further negotiations on the draft treaty text from July, a solid document that is not quite bulletproof. The Control Arms Coalition, a global alliance of groups advocating for a stronger treaty, is working to improve that text in several key areas.
One major concern is the regulation of ammunition. A loophole clause also allows weapons to be transferred if they are labeled as part of a national defense cooperation agreement. Language on the use of the term “genocide” and an overall need to improve reporting and transparency requirements similarly need tightening.
Globally, problems associated with the arms trade cross traditional UN power groupings. African and Latin American countries, who feel the impact of armed violence directly through the poorly regulated weapons trade, have championed the treaty.
Major exporters of arms have a particular responsibility to ensure the treaty creates the strongest norm possible on international arms trading. In a communiqué issued last month, the foreign affairs ministers of Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain as well as the minister for trade of Sweden called for the General Assembly to mandate a follow-up conference as early as possible in 2013 to build on the draft text from this summer and complete this crucial work.
Last week, the US also reiterated its support for a treaty and a March conference. While government officials have denied that elections and Second Amendment concerns led to their request for more time in July, the National Rifle Association and pro-gun groups have inaccurately argued that the treaty would infringe on US citizens and lead to a UN gun grab. Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan has come out against the arms trade treaty, throwing into doubt US support under a Romney administration.
Still, the vast majority of nations and regional groups express optimism about meeting the March deadline.
Another issue dogging the process, however, is the use and interpretation of “consensus” in the voting. The General Assembly typically strives for consensus but does allow for voting when consensus cannot be reached. Arguing that it needed protection against a weak treaty, the US insisted on adding a strict consensus rule to the 2009 resolution that started negotiations. The definition of consensus was intensely debate in a February preparatory committee meeting this year. Some states are operating as though consensus means that any one country can have veto power to shut down the entire process at the final stage.
The March conference, to take place in New York, is meant to operate on a consensus basis, so this question remains a concern to some states and civil society groups, who fear a potential diplomatic Ground Hog Day in which the talks could fail again and the process would need another restart.
It’s imperative that an arms trade treaty be concluded as quickly as possible. Millions of people suffer every day from the direct and indirect consequences of the irresponsible and poorly regulated arms trade. While there are treaties on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, there is no international treaty on the global arms trade. It’s as simple as that.