Monday, July 30, 2012

Moving on and forward

by Katherine Prizeman, Global Action to Prevent War
As the mandate for the arms trade treaty (ATT) Diplomatic Conference expired on Friday afternoon, delegates and civil society alike were disappointed at the failure to adopt a treaty after four weeks of negotiations and, perhaps more importantly, the inability to address the lack of internationally-adopted common standards for the unregulated trade in conventional arms. 

The President’s draft treaty text was listed in the annex in the Report of the Conference, although there was no clear indication of how that text would be treated in the future either in the UN General Assembly (UNGA) First Committee in October or elsewhere. While many delegations expressed regret over the lack of a consensus document, there was general agreement that the process is not over. In a statement to the plenary delivered by Mexico, a group of 90 countries expressed the desire to bring the current text to the GA First Committee to “finalize our work” to achieve “a strong and robust Treaty.” The Nigerian delegation explicitly called for a new mandate from the UNGA to complete the work of the ATT on the basis of the President’s most recent draft text with further consultations. The delegations of Germany, CARICOM, and Spain called for an ATT to be adopted “in the near future,” while others, including Peru, said there was “near unanimity”.

While this large majority of delegations is correct and commendable in their desire to continue to identify a way forward to achieve the still elusive goal of an ATT, it is difficult to imagine how, even with more consultations, the present text would become more robust or that member states would be able to reach “unanimity” on the major issues still left unresolved. After four weeks of hard work and difficult, political wrangling, there is much to be disappointed over.

The President’s most recent draft text still has significant loopholes and is far from the robust ATT that was aspired to by many delegates and civil society advocates—ammunition and munitions are lacking in the core items listed in the scope; the implementation measures provide for a superseding of the criteria by the vague references to “other instruments” and “contractual obligations under defence cooperation agreements;” records of authorizations do not need to be made public; and amendments can only be adopted through consensus, leaving very little flexibility for substantive future changes in the treaty. The language pertaining to criteria is particularly weak given the structure of the ATT, as it will be driven primarily by national implementation responsibilities (and thus biases related to national interest). Diversion remains a “secondary” consideration in paragraph 6.4 (national assessment) requiring that states only “consider taking feasible measures” to avoid it. These are not insignificant weaknesses. They compromise the treaty and its ability to combat and eradicate the illicit and irresponsible trade in arms in a consistent, universal, and legally-binding manner.

Although the particulars of the text could certainly continue to be debated, the question now becomes how to proceed with the process writ large. Although the overwhelming majority of member states have made apparent their intention to continue the ATT process, the specific path forward (and on what basis) does not enjoy the same clarity. The most obvious option would be to bring the draft treaty to the First Committee in October and request another mandate to continue work through a new Diplomatic Conference. This is a position that, although not detailed explicitly on Friday afternoon, would seem to garner significant support among delegations given the commentary in the room. The French delegation noted that states “should not start from zero,” which would indicate support for using the draft text as the base forward.  Likewise the Chinese, Moroccan, and UK delegations called the President’s text “a good basis for future negotiations”.

As member states prepare to bring the ATT to the UNGA this fall, it is important to remember that the rule of consensus, and ultimately the de facto veto power of each member state, will not necessarily apply to future negotiations. As such, the majority of member states that have called for an ATT with stronger provisions than the ones found in the President’s text (presumably more than the 2/3 majority required for adoption of resolutions in the UNGA), should propose a text that encompasses more of the provisions that these member states have fought for throughout the negotiations, most notably inclusion of ammunition and munitions in the scope and clear, legally-binding criteria for national risk assessment. The group of 90 states on Friday noted, “Compromises have had to be made, but overall the text … has the overwhelming support of the international community as a base for carrying forward our work.” Ultimately, if the rules of procedure change, then so should the treaty. The compromises made during July should be revaluated if they only apply to a few select states and a new, stronger text should be presented.

The goal of a universal, legally-binding treaty for the trade in conventional arms was and remains a noble one. A global ATT would certainly serve as a complement to already-existing, but mostly non-binding, agreements such as the UN Programme of Action on small arms, as well as future instruments seeking to contribute to the strengthening of the UN’s multilateral security framework.  As the next “phase” of this process begins, delegates and civil society should seize the opportunity to adopt a treaty that can make a robust contribution such a framework.