by Ray Acheson, Reaching Critical Will of WILPF
Thursday marked the first full day of work at the conference to negotiate an arms trade treaty (ATT). Among dozens of statements by delegations, the conference also attempted to reach agreement on its programme of work for the next week. Both the substantive and procedural debates revealed that some governments have interests other than humanitarian imperatives guiding their positions and behaviour at this conference.
In terms of procedure, while most delegates were eager to start negotiations, a few expressed concern with the structure of meetings proposed by the Chair. By the end of the day, the Chair was able to gavel a decision on Friday’s schedule, despite some remaining skepticism by a few delegations. These countries, most vocally Cuba, India, and Syria, expressed concerned with the scheduling of parallel meetings and with what kind of access civil society might have to each of component. Other delegations expressed frustration with this further delay in commencing work, arguing that it does not matter how the treaty is negotiated but rather what is negotiated. However, the hold-ups over procedure suggest that the states questioning the methods of work remain skeptical about the negotiation of any ATT; indeed, throughout the entire ATT process they have expressed concern that the treaty might limit their ability to import arms.
Thus, regardless of how the conference operates, the key question remains: what exactly will the ATT look like? Will it have the necessary content and mechanisms to address the devastating humanitarian consequences of the unregulated arms trade, as the majority of countries want? Or will it be so “simple, short, and easy to implement” as demanded by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—which are also among the world’s biggest arms exporters—that it will not make a dent in the inconceivable volume of deaths, rapes, injuries, displacements, poverty, and crime seen around the world every day? Will it prevent weapons from being used to violate international humanitarian or human rights law, or will it provide cover for dubious arms transfers due to loopholes and interpretations?
While the majority of countries have reiterated their commitment to negotiating a robust treaty that has humanitarian imperatives at its core, there are still those that, like France, seek a treaty that will further legitimize the arms trade, or, like the Arab Group, seek a treaty that will facilitate the sale of weapons to developing nations.
But the ATT cannot be, must not be, about legitimizing or facilitating the arms trade. It can, and must, be about reducing human suffering. It can, and must, put human security above profit margins.
As the Mexican delegation noted, “It is difficult to understand that in a world where regulations exist for commerce in every type of goods, including basic goods, we still do not have a regulatory framework for those products that have been designed and manufactured with the specific purpose of inflicting harm.” Dr. Glowinski argued, “We control cereals and dairy products, but we do not accept responsibility for the sale of conventional weapons, their parts and ammunition. This situation is unsustainable. This reality is ethically flawed.”
Deaths. Rape. Injury. Displacement. Poverty. Crime. These are the realities that negotiators here in New York must keep at the forefront of their minds as they work to overcome the political and economic interests suggesting other priorities.