Through deliberations during the first week of the arms trade treaty (ATT) conference, transparency has become a buzzword, but it is not meaningless jargon: the notion of transparency strikes to core purpose of this Treaty. Without mandatory public reporting, the high common standards sought by states parties will be meaningless, mere words belying a stark and growing reality of the irresponsible and illicit arms trade measurable in staggering human costs. This treaty cannot succeed as a binding legal instrument without transparency in its implementation: words ripen into reality through collective compliance and mutual confidence. Mandatory, standardized compliance reporting among states parties is, then, the keystone to an operative set of collectively beneficial arms regulations.
Most states do already submit arms transfer reports to the UN Register of Conventional Arms, and many states—including some of the world’s predominant arms suppliers—already publish significant export data per national policy dictates. The very fact of the ATT negotiations demonstrates that this is not enough. All current reports are voluntary. They are also incomplete: many fail to distinguish between types of weapons, or the nature of the trade, making oversight difficult. Transparency disparities between exporters and importers, furthermore, allow organized crime syndicates to manipulate customs or circuitously route illicit arms through countries with weaker reporting policies.
If the ATT is to possess full force and effect, it must feature standardized, reliable transparency provisions and an independent body to collect and review reports submitted by member states. This independent body could take the form of either a secretariat or another type of expert group: an active body can query inaccurate or mistaken reports, request further submissions, or find information to fill in blanks.
There are many benefits to this approach. Foremost among these is the mutual confidence and security fostered among states parties regarding equal implementation of ATT strictures. Standardized, public information also allows for democratic accountability, and reduces the likelihood of diversion.
What, then, is transparency in the context of a strong Arms Trade Treaty? It will need to include standardized, publicly available annual reports featuring:
- Accurate data regarding the volume, type, and timing of all international arms transfers covered by the ATT; and
- Reporting by importers and exporters alike in order to account for gaps that may indicate diversion
The fear of administrative costs in reporting is overstated as well: matching capacity-building measures can identify sources of appropriate assistance and enable struggling countries to implement reporting requirements. Moreover, much of the information necessary for adequate transparency is similar to information already routinely gathered by nearly all customs agencies. Finally, failure to report need not be prima facie evidence of treaty noncompliance: there can initially be a grace period as states navigate ATT reporting requirements.
Ultimately, the combined interests of all states parties in a binding ATT outweigh the potential downsides: transparency provides security in equitable implementation and safeguards the interests of the countless human lives jeopardized by irresponsible transfers and illicit diversion. If the treaty is not to be openly implemented and its signatories held accountable to its provisions, of what value is it?