Absence of Global Standards for Arms Trade ‘Defies Explanation’, but after Long Journey, Final Destination in Sight, Secretary-General Tells Conference

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Final Conference
on Arms Trade Treaty
1st & 2nd Meetings (AM & PM)

New Round of Negotiations Gets Under Way to Reach Consensus on Binding Treaty to Control Cross-border Trade

With a multi-billion-dollar trade in conventional weapons still threatening the lives of millions of civilians around the world, the time had come for States to overcome past setbacks and deliver on a robust, legally binding arms trade treaty, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told a packed room at Headquarters as the Final United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty kicked off this morning.

“After a very long journey, our final destination is in sight,” he told delegates, who had gathered to attend the two-week conference. Indeed, following the failure of the July 2012 Arms Trade Treaty Conference to reach an agreement on a draft text, the question of regulating the international trade in conventional weapons remained a complex one, touching on issues ranging from commerce to national security to human rights and humanitarian law.

However, he said that while it was no doubt a difficult issue, the still-unresolved absence of the rule of law in the conventional arms trade “defies explanation”. There were international standards regulating everything from T-shirts to toys to tomatoes. There were even regulations for furniture, meaning that “there are common standards for the global trade in armchairs, but not for the global trade in arms,” and families and communities around the world were paying a heavy price.

Indeed, poorly regulated global arms deals undermined sustainable development, fostered conflict and undercut the Organization’s peacekeeping, peacebuilding and humanitarian efforts, leading to the deaths of more than half a million people each year, the Secretary-General said, adding that the arms trade treaty “will put warlords, pirates, human rights abusers, organized criminals, terrorists and gun runners on notice”.

The first United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty — mandated by the General Assembly in its landmark resolution 61/89 of 2006 — met from 2 to 27 July 2012 in New York and, despite the widely held view that considerable political capital had been spent there, no consensus was reached on a treaty. Nevertheless, momentum gathered for the General Assembly’s decision to convene a final conference in 2013, with its negotiations based on a draft treaty text submitted by the Conference President on 26 July 2012.

Indeed, “we are not starting with a blank sheet,” said Conference President Peter Woolcott, and while last year’s Conference had ended with a disappointing lack of consensus, he said he believed that “disappointment has now given way to determination”. He urged delegates to build on the July 2012 text and to exert focus and discipline in seeking solutions that could bridge remaining differences.

Throughout the Conference’s day-long general exchange of views, the more than 50 speakers who took the floor stressed the importance of seizing the opportunity to further the process and ensure that progress not be stalled. “Failure is not an option,” said the representative of the Netherlands, addressing the Conference on behalf of Denmark, Germany, Mexico and the United Kingdom. The groundwork had certainly been laid, and now time was of the essence, he said.

“A perfect piece of paper will not save lives,” said the representative of the United Kingdom, stressing that the Conference was an opportunity to craft a strong text that the majority of States — including the major arms exporters — could implement. Like many other speakers, she remained convinced that an arms trade treaty should cover all conventional arms, their munitions, and parts and components, and added that introducing mandatory public reporting would improve the transparency of the arms trade and tackle diversion to the illicit market.

The representative of France, also speaking on behalf of China, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States, called for the adoption of a simple, short and easy text. However, he cautioned, the treaty should not hinder the legitimate arms trade or the legitimate right to self-defence. Rather, it should create a shared responsibility in the transfer of conventional arms between all States, be they exporters, importers or transit countries.

In that vein, other speakers stressed that respect for State sovereignty and territorial integrity must be a central tenet of any potential treaty. The representative of Kuwait, speaking on behalf of the Arab Group, said that it would not accept any legal provisions that could lead to the use of the treaty as a pretext to interfere in the internal affairs of States. Efforts should focus on reaching “tangible goals free of ambiguities and loopholes” that would leave it open to political selectivity, double standards and manipulations, he said.

The representative of Cuba emphasized the challenge of completing, in just nine days, such a complex treaty. With the application of the term “final” in the title of the Arms Trade Treaty Conference, an artificial and dangerous “now or never” scenario was imposed. “It should not be the purpose to adopt a treaty at any cost,” he warned.

Speaking on behalf of the African States, the representative of Nigeria said that the text must ensure that weapons did not fall into the hands of terrorist groups, and called for strengthened capacity-building through international cooperation. A “realistic and flexible” approach was needed, particularly on the issues affecting the nearly 1 billion people on the African continent, he said.

Not all delegations agreed that the July draft was the best basis for the present negotiations. The representative of the Russian Federation said it was hardly an effective instrument in addressing the global arms trade. For example, he said, it needed qualitative work in the area of weapons being diverted from the licit to the illicit trade. He intended to submit proposals that would strengthen the treaty and its legal language to avoid dual and triple interpretations.

At the outset of the meeting, Mr. Woolcott stated that the Conference’s seating arrangements would allow for two non-Member observer States, the Holy See and Palestine, to speak among Member States in alphabetical order.

Making a brief statement following that announcement, the representative of the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See stressed that it would continue to advocate for future conferences to be open to all States. The representative of the Permanent Observer Mission of the State of Palestine underscored that the present organizational understanding should not set a precedent for future meetings. “We are sacrificing for the good of the collective,” he said.

In other business today, the Conference elected, by acclamation, 11 countries to fill the posts of Vice-Chairs: Japan, Pakistan and the Republic of Korea from the Group of Asia-Pacific States; Azerbaijan, Estonia and Romania from the Group of Eastern European States; Argentina, Belize and Mexico from the Group of Latin American and Caribbean States; and the Netherlands and Switzerland from the Group of Western European and Other States.

Also today, Daniel Prins, Chief of the Conventional Weapons Branch of the Office of Disarmament Affairs, was elected Secretary-General of the Conference.

The Conference also appointed members of its Credentials Committee, namely: Angola, China, Peru, Russian Federation, Seychelles, Sweden, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago and the United States.

Also speaking during the general exchange of views were ministers or high-level officials from the following countries: Finland, Costa Rica, Gabon, Denmark, the Dominican Republic, the United States, Indonesia, Brazil, Czech Republic, Iraq, China, Rwanda, Burundi and Djibouti.

The representatives of Trinidad and Tobago (on behalf of Caribbean Community), Mexico (on behalf of 108 Member States) and Papua New Guinea (on behalf of the Pacific Island States and Timor-Leste) also spoke.

The representatives of Peru (on behalf of the Bahamas, Belize, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Jamaica, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago and Uruguay), Kazakhstan, Yemen, Syria, Japan, Iran, India, Cambodia, Germany, Viet Nam, New Zealand, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Mozambique, Zambia, Belarus, Paraguay, Israel, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Algeria, the United Republic of Tanzania, Tunisia, Switzerland, Mali, Sudan, Ghana, Turkey and the Republic of Korea also participated.