by Katherine Prizeman, Global Action to Prevent War
The opening of the “Final Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty” and the general exchange of views saw a myriad of statements from Foreign Ministers and other delegates from diverse global regions. There was a general commitment by most delegates that the time for serious discussion on the concrete details of the text has come and that overly general statements or continued reiteration of well-known state positions has passed. Despite this positive sense of commitment and urgency, there remains a yawning gap between the necessity of reaching consensus through unfettered compromise and the commitment to retain a strong treaty and fight for certain indispensable components and provisions without which an ATT would be meaningless in practice.
Consensus through compromise must have limits such that the strength and, therefore, effectiveness of the ATT will not be sacrificed ad infinitum for the sake of reaching consensus. Delegations must identify the elements of the ATT that are absolutely necessary to its success—success as defined by how effectively it contributes to international peace and security through defining arms transfer standards in order to codify the denial of transfers that will contribute to, inter alia, violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. Adopting a consensus treaty merely for the sake of obtaining a treaty is woefully insufficient. The task at hand requires more. As noted by Ambassador Enrique Roman-Morey of Peru on behalf of 11 states from Latin America and the Caribbean as well as the representative of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the ATT must constitute a legally-binding instrument and not the loose language reflective of a political declaration or a General Assembly resolution.
The Foreign Minister of Denmark noted in his general remarks that “during this conference, national positions will have to be aligned, opponents’ arguments accepted and concessions made … to seek common ground and to make the necessary compromises to get us all, and particular the major arms exporters of this world, on board.” Likewise, the Foreign Minister of Finland stated that the 26 July text would have been “an acceptable compromise treaty, although there is room for improvement.” This position that compromise is an inevitability without restraint that will dictate the entirety of the process is worrisome. While the ‘universality versus strength’ debate does not have a simple resolution, it does beg the question—at what point does compromise not only become harmful to the process, but also dangerous? If the text becomes so compromised that it does little to change arms transfer policy in practice, but instead provides ‘legal’ cover for arms exporters to continue operating in the same manner, then shouldn’t states stand firm against such a compromise?
It is essential that delegations distinguish the elements of indispensability for the ATT regardless of the rule of consensus. Consensus must not serve to restrict the ATT to a document that merely reinforces the existing culture of unevenly regulated arms transfers. What could be worse, as noted in the statement from 108 countries delivered by the delegate of Mexico, “A weak Arms Trade Treaty could serve to legitimize the irresponsible and illegal arms trade. This is an outcome we must avoid.” Therefore, such “non-negotiables” that are required for a robust ATT include inclusion of small arms and light weapons, ammunition and munitions, parts and components in the scope; strong, unambiguous, and legally-binding national risk assessment criteria that take into account human rights, international humanitarian law, diversion risks, and gender-based violence and do not allow for ‘cover’ through externally agreed bilateral agreements such as ‘defense cooperation agreements’ or through gifting or loans; a strong implementation mechanism with appropriate levels of verifiability and accountability; and the ability to strengthen the Treaty and make amendments over time in light of continuously changing security circumstances.
A statement delivered by Ambassador Simon-Michel of France on behalf of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and United States—also referenced compromise in the context of the July negotiations. Ambassador Simon-Michel noted, “The July 26th text is a reflection of international efforts to find common ground and contains some compromises that it is essential to preserve.… Our common goal remains to reach consensus.”
But the common goal is not just to reach consensus. The common goal is to negotiate and adopt an ATT that is strong and effective in practice that will improve international peace and security and combat the deadly humanitarian consequences associated with the unregulated trade in conventional arms trade. Anything less would be not only a disappointment, but as previously noted, potentially a dangerous legitimization of illicit and irresponsible transfers.