by Owen Greene, Saferworld
In the final days of the arms trade treaty (ATT) negotiations, difficult compromises are being discussed to accommodate the concerns of states in the hopes of still achieving a worthwhile treaty text. Several highly sceptical states have been very vocal in the negotiating sessions. Behind the scenes, there have been concerted efforts to address the key concerns of some major arms exporters and importers, including China, Russia, India, and the USA. Even if it is not widely expected that such ‘reluctant’ states will quickly ratify an ATT, it is important to try to gain their acceptance of a treaty text, especially if it is forwarded to the General Assembly First Committee.
The substance of each of these major states’ declared ‘red lines’ varied substantially during the sessions of the Preparatory Committee. The USA called for exclusion of ammunition from the treaty’s scope and reiterated its opposition to strong norms against licensing exports where risk assessments find “a substantial risk” of negative consequences. China argued for a modest treaty limited to ‘trade’ (i.e. not ‘transfer’) of the seven categories of the UN Register of Conventional Arms, objected to ‘subjective’ criteria, emphasised norms including “non-interference in states’ internal affairs”, objected small arms and light weapons (SALW) and ammunition, and objected to specific references to international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL).
India had several reservations similar to those of China, and was especially committed to avoiding a treaty that could help to legitimise arms export denials to arms importing states based on ‘subjective’ or ‘discriminatory’ assessment criteria. Russia expressed great scepticism regarding the value of an ATT, made various unilateral proposals relating to its specific national concerns as an arms exporter (such as on bilateral licensed production agreements), and emphasised that goals and objectives—which Russia asserted needed to be agreed upon before negotiations could proceed—should focus on preventing the illicit trade in conventional arms.
Efforts to adequately address such concerns of these states have taken many twists and turns. The text preferred by the majority of ‘like-minded,’ progressive states has been ‘re-balanced’, diluted, and undermined by significant loopholes in an effort to accommodate the “requirements” of these major arms exporters and importers; and the final negotiations are ongoing.
However, their contrasting negotiating approaches have had real consequences for the end-game discussions. Although the major elements of the USA’s position have long been understood, only in the last days has the US negotiating team explicitly outlined the concerns that would need to be addressed in relation to ammunition and criteria. Furthermore, India is insistent on including a clause on defence co-operation agreements, which a number of states regard as a highly problematic loophole. There is, even at this last moment, great uncertainty regarding what the Russian position is on much of the text.
This is in contrast with China’s negotiating approach in the ATT negotiations. China has negotiated toughly throughout, and has been able to ensure that most of its key concerns are addressed in the draft treaty text. Nonetheless, China has proved willing to make compromises, and, furthermore, in an orderly and timely way that has facilitated the complex, final stages of the multilateral negotiating process. For example, the deals through which China conceded inclusion of SALW and ammunition as well as specific references to IHL and IHRL—in recognition of African countries stated concerns and in exchange for concessions by others—were made with adequate negotiating time and not left until the last minute.
End-game brinkmanship is a well-established negotiating tactic, but, in UN negotiations, this often leads to unnecessary loopholes and weaknesses. This has become a major risk factor for the ATT and is particularly irritating where it appears to be the result more of domestic politics and indecision than in defence of clear national interests.
There are several ironies. These states continue to resist a comprehensive scope for the ATT, even though they themselves have relatively comprehensive national controls. Further, many concessions to weaken the ATT text are being made to these and other states that are ultimately unlikely to ratify the Treaty any time soon.