by Ray Acheson, Reaching Critical Will of WILPF
The adoption of the first ever Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is being billed by many governments and civil society organizations as an historic event. And indeed it is. This marks the first time that the General Assembly has adopted legally-binding rules to regulate international transfers of conventional weapons. The ATT is also the first treaty to recognize the links between the international arms trade and gender-based violence. Both of these firsts signify meaningful advancement for international humanitarian law (IHL), human rights, and peace and security. However, the treaty’s deficiencies mean that it could be suseptible to manipulation and abuse by those who want to continue profiting from the arms trade. To ensure that the text adopted on 2 April makes a difference in practice, governments, civil society, and the United Nations, as they begin to implement and interpret the treaty, must avoid legitimizing the international arms trade and irresponsible transfers.
While the final text is stronger than previous drafts, it still contains substantial limitations and loopholes. Its scope is narrow, providing only for consideration of a limited number of weapon systems and transfer activities. It does not legally obligate states to increase transparency in the international arms trade and even allows them to keep some information secret. The treaty’s use of the term “overriding risk” in its export assessment section suggests that other interests could “override” compliance with IHL, human rights law, or conventions related to terrorism and transnational organized crime. See ATT Monitor 6.9 for more examples of the treaty’s limitations and loopholes.
Despite these shortcoming that may prevent the treaty from effectively preventing human suffering, many governments voted in favour of the treaty nonetheless because they saw it as first step towards better regulation of the $70 billion arms trade.
In a joint statement, 98 states acknowledged that the final text “does not fully meet everyone’s expectations,” but argued that the treaty can be made stronger and adapted to future developments through its implementation. Uruguay described the ATT as a “regime in development” and Ireland said it is a “living treaty”. In this spirit, several delegations also delivered interpretative statements after the text’s adoption.
For example, Liechtenstein and New Zealand said they would interpret “overriding” as “substantive” in article 7. (Liechtenstein also noted that the term “overriding” in article 7 is translated in the French text as “preponderant,” in Spanish as “manifest,” and in Russian as “significant,” underscoring that this term poses linguistic problems as well as substantive ones.) The joint statement delivered by Mexico also made it clear that the majority of states will interpret article 7 to mean that no arms transfers will be authorized if they will potentially lead to negative consequences, such as serious violations of human rights or international humanitarian law. (See the News in Brief on page 4 for more examples of interpretative statements.)
However, not all states were prepared to accept the text as is. Of the 25 states that did not vote in favour, many criticized the text for not prohibiting arms transfers to either unauthorized or allnon-state actors. Others complained the treaty did not adequately address terrorism.
Most of all, though, the non-supporters cited a “lack of balance” between the obligations and rights of exporting and importing states. Such imbalance, from their perspective, is most visible in the export assessment and prohibition sections. Exporting parties are required to assess the risk that the weapons will facilitate violations of international law, including human rights law or IHL. But, as some states complained, the treaty does not reciprocally address concerns that major exporters themselves sometimes use arms to engage in violations of human rights. In addition, arms transfers are not prohibited to states engaged in foreign occupation or acts of aggression—to many of the abstaining Arab states in particular, this is another indication of the treaty’s inequity between the strong and the weak.
Several delegations also argued that the treaty does not address the problems of overproduction and overaccumulation of conventional weapons. Bolivia argued that the ATT text “favours the industry that lives off of the production of weapons” and that “priority has been given to profit over human suffering”.
Bolivia’s concerns, shared by Egypt, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and others, are not unfounded. Some of the major arms producing and exporting countries have already suggested that this treaty will not affect their export process. They do not see the ATT as an instrument that could be used to diminish their arms sales or to affect their own acquition or accumulation of weapons. They view the treaty as a tool to bring the rest of the world up to “their standards”.
But the raison d’être behind the ATT is that “their standards” are unacceptable. The failure of the status quo to protect human life and prevent death and destruction is why states decided to negotiate this treaty, and why civil society decided to engage with this process. And changing the status quo is why robust interpretation and effective implemention of the treaty are so important.
All states that transfer and acquire weapons must be held to account. States parties, international organizations, and civil society must work collectively to make sure that the practice and policies of all governments are transformed by the provisions of this treaty. We must look beyond the divisions between powerful and weak, exporter and importer, and look holistically at the international arms trade.
These negotiations had as their immediate backdrop civil war in Syria, Mali, and the DRC; military interventions in Libya and Mali; armed conflict between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories; and more. A longer perspective brings in to view countless other conflicts, interventions, occupations, genocides, and wars, not to mention the daily scourge of armed violence plaguing many countries not in conflict.
The bottom line is that there will still be too much death, destruction, and suffering as a consequence of the overproduction, irresponsible transfer, and misuse of conventional weapons. When major industrial economies rely so much on weapons production and sale, it can hardly be expected that a treaty like the one just adopted can make a decisive impact on these problems. But we have to start somewhere.