by Jonathan Frerichs, World Council of Churches
After decades of gestation and years in labor, a new treaty seems well on its way to being born. What lies ahead for this new member of the global village? Will it be an orphan with few prospects in life? Or will there be many to take it in their charge and to give it a future? The almost impossible parentage involved looks certain to keep such questions alive.
It is a treaty to put first-ever controls on global arms transfers. Yet it is not nearly as muscular as the global majority says is needed for the task. It is a treaty that could help set a much-needed global norm. But it is being born with a mixture of congenital weaknesses and imposed restrictions.
When it came to having this child, the global village has long been divided into competing camps. From the beginning a large number of potential parents voted and took action for a future arms trade treaty. A much smaller group was equally clear about wanting little or nothing to do with it.
During a long bout in the delivery room last July, community dynamics shifted. Some 30 to 40 stand-offish villagers appeared to choose sides. About half of them—including some large and lavishly-armed permanent citizens—joined the group that was more or less in favour of the arms trade treaty. They did not come over without making an impact. Although the new child was intended to live up to the highest possible common international standards, it was clear that the new supporters were to have the last word on what was “possible”. As a result, the new child would be weaker than many felt it should be.
Meanwhile, those villagers still opposed formed a ‘no’ camp. Outspoken members of this camp generated a month-long litany of complaints about the proposed child and its prospects.
Now two unforeseen weeks in the delivery room are coming to an end. After long days of labor pains, are the treaty child and its prospects any brighter?
The new delivery, the intended future ATT, is still weakened by the latitude states will have in selling arms to places where their products put people's lives and basic rights at risk. The future treaty still does not embrace all the weapons it was intended to cover. Nor does it put adequate controls on ammunition, parts and components.
Public reporting is not required. The familiar air of sovereignty and secrecy is thickened in other ways too. In what is often judged to be the global village’s most corrupt industry, the treaty sheds little light on corruption.
Many villagers, however, seem prepared to add strength to what is on paper. A majority chorus of 100-plus voices has come out repeatedly for what it still needs. Such mentoring is critical for success. There will be much to sing about, and plenty to lament. The new and untried treaty will require arms exporters who have never had to answer to anyone to assess for the first time whether what they supply could be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international human rights law or international humanitarian law.
At first glance, the intended treaty looks somewhat self-conscious about its failings. As if asking to have a chance in life, it encourages state parties to go beyond what is required of them and to adopt practices that may finally make some of the arms trade more responsible.
The intended treaty does not achieve the highest possible common standard for the people who need such a standard the most. But it does open doors for responsible governments to raise the standard over time.
In a significant sign of hope, Article 20 allows for amendment by vote, as a last resort. This serves notice that amending the treaty will not be held hostage to the habitual abuse of consensus in UN circles.
The intended ATT presents a healthy challenge to the global village. It asks to be adopted by both arms producers and by the countries most affected by the armed violence that unregulated arms transfers fuel. In many ways the search for this balance reflects dynamics between the Global North and Global South. Progress toward an agreement has included familiar but disturbing demonstrations of how the common good is marginalized by the prerogatives of the wealthiest and most powerful countries. Affected states have once again had to decide whether or not to accept a weaker instrument than the one needed in their context. They were again subjected to someone else’s redlines despite the much more human redlines related to their own circumstances.
However, with support from Europe and transcontinental solidarity of sub-Saharan Africa, Caribbean, Latin American and Pacific states, the new treaty is making a promising start at becoming the long-awaited child of many.