by Ray Acheson, Reaching Critical Will of WILPF
On the opening morning of continued negotiations for an arms trade treaty (ATT), 108 countries warned that a weak treaty could serve to legitimize the irresponsible and illegal arms trade. Of course, this would be the exact opposite of the original objective of the ATT. Yet this is a real possibility, especially given the position of many of the major arms producing and exporting states.
In a joint statement, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5)—all of which are among the top arms exporters in the world—reiterated their call for the ATT to be “short, simple, and easy to implement.” They demanded that under the ATT, each state party should establish a “national control list of items as defined on a national basis.” In individual statements, each of the P5 members echoed this sentiment, with the US government also indicating that the ATT should recognize that each state “must tailor and enforce its own national export and import control mechanisms.”
These comments suggest that the P5 are looking for a piece of paper that simply says each country should regulate its arms exports and imports. After six years of work in the United Nations and more than a decade of campaigning aimed at ending the immense human suffering caused by the irresponsible arms trade, this is unacceptable. As Dr. Robert Zuber writes in his article in this edition of the ATT Monitor, “a treaty that does little more than provide legal sanction for arms manufacturing states to determine their own transfers-related standards is insufficient at best and dangerous at worst.”
The UK signed on to both the P5 and the 108-country statement. The fact that the one articulates a vision of a treaty quite different—perhaps even opposite—from the other seems curious, until one realizes that the P5 do not envisage an instrument that will affect their current practices. Indeed, most of the major exporters do not see the ATT as an instrument that will affect their own exports. Instead, they see it as a way to even the playing field so that all countries sell weapons on an equal footing. This is alarming when considered in the context of the status quo, in which arms transferred by some of these exporters are used to commit human rights violations.
The P5, and other major exporters, consistently demand respect for the so-called “legitimate” arms trade. There is danger in trying to distinguish in this way between the “legitimate” and the “illegitimate”—or “legal” and “illegal”—arms trade. Many human rights abuses or violations of international humanitarian law (IHL), including acts of gender-based violence, are committed with weapons sold through “legal” trade, not just with weapons that have been diverted to illicit markets or with those sold by countries without any export regulations.
An ATT that is truly effective must be useful in assessing all arms transfers from all parties, in particular the major producers and exporters. It must not simply bring all countries up to the status quo—the status that quo is already failing humanity.
During the next few days, the most fundamental task of all delegations and organizations at this conference is to ensure that the ATT does not legitimize the status quo, or create loopholes for even more egregious violations of human rights and IHL. The delegations assembled at this final conference must choose a path that leads to a world where human security always trumps profiteering and antiquated conceptions of national interest.