by Katherine Prizeman, Global Action to Prevent War
In the US delegation’s statement to the plenary meeting on Friday morning, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Countryman stated that the US seeks “a treaty that establishes high international standards for controlling the transfer of arms on par with current best practices.” It is important to underscore that with this opportunity to negotiate an ATT, an entirely new instrument of international law, there must be a higher degree of ambition in this process than only endorsing standards reflective of current best practices. While there are examples of ‘good practices’ in arms export controls currently in existence, the forthcoming ATT must do more than improve on national control systems. Improving the quality and functioning of national control systems and encouraging sound national legislation will be essential to successful implementation of an ATT, but attempting to maintain complete sovereign control over the Treaty process in the form of weak language around criteria for transfers and singular focus on “national export control” is not ambitious enough. Furthermore, this strategy has the potential to undermine the meaningfulness of the Treaty itself by providing potential political cover for future dubious transfers. The goals and objectives of the ATT require more of member states.
The provision included in the Chair’s most recent ‘Discussion Paper’ from 3 July notes in its Preamble that “States Parties may adopt more restrictive measures than those provided in the Arms Trade Treaty.” This is a welcome addition insofar as the ATT should be viewed as a floor, not a ceiling, for the regulation of the arms trade. States should be encouraged to adopt stricter standards of verification to the greatest degree possible and progressive states, along with NGOs, should continue to push governments to go beyond the consensus-driven standards in the Treaty that (hopefully) will be adopted at the end of the month. Moreover, any ATT must not be used as an excuse for the UN to limit or curtail its advocacy for better controls of illicit small arms, or for stronger application of international humanitarian and human rights law related to the production or use of armaments. Nonetheless, sufficient emphasis should also be placed on making the Treaty obligations themselves robust, effective, and meaningful for addressing a comprehensive set of goals and objectives of an ATT—to contribute to international and regional peace, security, and stability by preventing transfers that contribute to or facilitate human suffering, serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, the displacement of people, transnational organized crime, gender-based violence, and terrorist acts.
As referenced by several delegations during the formal debate on ‘Goals and objectives’ in Main Committee I on Friday, UN General Assembly Resolution 64/48, which provides the mandate for this process, clearly lays forth the principle goals and objectives of negotiating an ATT as expressed in Paragraph 3: “Recognizing that the absence of commonly agreed international standards for the transfer of conventional arms that address, inter alia, the problems relating to the unregulated trade of conventional arms and their diversion to the illicit market is a contributory factor to armed conflict, the displacement of people, organized crime and terrorism, thereby undermining peace, reconciliation, safety, security, stability and sustainable social and economic development.” Although some delegations continued to assert that the goals and objectives of an ATT are still ‘unclear’ and lack consensus, the delegations of Norway, France, Trinidad and Tobago, and Switzerland rightly stated that these goals and objective are plainly provided for in Resolution 64/48, at the very least as a starting point for the discussion. Therefore, the argument would follow that the ATT’s intent is clearly more than facilitating the legal trade of conventional arms through a process of improving national export controls.
As delegations continue to tackle the substantive work of treaty text proposals in the committee bodies, it is imperative to bear in mind that striving for harmonization with “current best practices” of export controls is not ambitious enough, as evidenced by the original UNGA resolution that calls for an ATT that addresses a myriad of issues related to human security. Focusing only on current standards for national export controls—even the best of them—will not entirely address the problem of transfers that contribute to the human security problems underscored in the goals and objectives provided in the original UNGA resolution. It is essential to aim higher.