Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Importing trouble

by Maj Rørdam Nielsen and Dr. Robert Zuber, Global Action to Prevent War

The statement presented at the ATT negotiating conference by the Egyptian Ambassador last Thursday was obscured a bit by participation issues centered on Palestine and the Holy See. But it raised important questions that deserve more attention from diplomats and commentators, including the following: Will the outcome tilt the balance further in favor of major arms producers at the expense of importing states by giving them added tools to further consolidate their practices in the context of exiting export control regimes, often seen as discriminatory and often politicized?” 

The solution to this ‘politicization’ of arms transfer policy, according to the Egyptian delegation, is to provide importers with a “phased appeal mechanism against political abuse”.

It is not clear from the statement itself what Egypt specifically has in mind. Clearly Egypt (and other states) are concerned that the ATT is in danger of becoming an ‘exporters’ treaty’ (all of the prohibitions listed in the Chair's paper, for instance, are geared towards exporting states) with few responsibilities accruing to importing states, but with even less text that underscores the capability of non-producing states to purchase weapons free of ‘political’ considerations by the exporting powers. This for some states would include the decision by exporting states to unilaterally deny transfers based on the belief that the proposed importers should instead put their limited funds into social development.

There is at this point a clear imbalance in the treaty language, focusing primarily on the responsibilities of weapons producing states to create national laws to ensure that transferred weapons are not diverted into criminality or used to abuse human rights. Importing states have their own responsibilities as well such as timely reporting on transfers and designating national focal points. They might also be reasonably required to create legal structures that can guarantee only authorized use of imported weapons as well as mechanisms for punishing those who pervert such use. But the importing states do not possess the capacity to guarantee their own ‘security’ through locally produced armaments. In this sense, they are dependent on unilateral decisions by exporting states regarding their 'fitness' to receive arms.

It seems unreasonable that major arms producers would ever agree to a treaty that required them to sell weapons to states whose policies are inconsistent with their own national interests. There is no presumption to sell. However, non-discriminatory transactions are a fundamental aspect of commerce in many of the major arms producing states. In the US, for instance, we don’t check religious or political identification in the supermarket check-out line before allowing customers to swipe their credit card. If upholding the right of legitimate self defense is as inalienable for importing states as exporting ones, then it seems reasonable that access to the weapons that ostensibly (if erroneously in our view) guarantee that security be somehow recognized.

Should the treaty negotiators take up the question of how a state not under an embargo or threatening mass atrocities can promote its security when some or all major arms exporters threaten to refuse them sale? The legitimate threat of diversion would hopefully be sufficient to deny sale, but what if a ‘finding’ of diversion is politically motivated rather than based on relevant data?  Should there be no recourse for states facing such discrimination at the point of sale?

As an organization that is committed to reducing levels of armament and spending on armaments, Global Action to Prevent War is very uneasy about advocating for some version of the Egyptian proposal for an 'appeal mechanism' to facilitate arms flows to non-producing states. We know that many states have been wary of supporting an ISU with independent authority to ‘flag’ transfers with high diversion potential, and they would surely be uneasy as well with a proposal to invest the ISU with the authority to determine and highlight a ‘political motive’ for denying a particular arms transfer.  However, such a denial would seem to be ‘out of line’ with the underlying national security logic governing so much of the ATT discussion, though clearly this is not as critical matter as approving a transfer into an environment where diversion potential was known to be high.  

However, the consequences of un-remediated politicization of transfers might be more serious still: a robust and renewed interest in the weapons ‘black market;’ a commitment to capture and renovate a portion of the millions of illicit weapons in circulation worldwide;  or even efforts to create national weapons industries or legalize ‘cottage’ industries that produce weapons from parts. The politicization of weapon sales could lead to a proliferation of arms industries and pursuits that would create new headaches for both treaty implementation and regional/sub-regional peace and security. If weapons are 'necessary' for national security, a contention we do not support but that many states do, then states will find ways to get those weapons, legitimately or illegitimately, treaty or no treaty. We must not clumsily provide incentives for states to take their business outside of more formal, transparent options.

Part of the reason that NGOs and many states push for humanitarian dimensions to this treaty is that we need to avoid immersion in discussions focused only on the security implications of transfers and not also on the insecurity implications. Amidst the robust assertions of national interest, we must be reminded of the wide-scale violence and social insecurity that transferred weapons—licit and illicit—make possible. If the ATT process is not designed to scale back or even eliminate such weapons—and sadly it seems unlikely to be so designed—a final treaty must at least be fair in its application in order to win broad support. Failure to at least attempt to accommodate the security interests of importing states (and de-politicized transfers would appear to be relevant here) might inadvertently complicate other UN-backed efforts to eliminate existing stockpiles of illicit weapons, curb street-level violence (especially against women), secure borders, inspect harbors, spread dependable technologies for marking and tracing small arms and light weapons, and address a range of other critical security concerns.