Efforts to Replace Piecemeal System of Global Arms Restraint with Binding Treaty Thwarted When Handful of States Says Text Ignores National Concerns

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Final Conference
on Arms Trade Treaty
17th Meeting* (PM)

Iran, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Syria Block Consensus; Speaker Says ‘This is Success Deferred, Not Failure’ as Text Heads to General Assembly for Vote

After two weeks of closed-door consultations, a sweeping arms trade treaty text setting out principles and rules to regulate the staggering array of weapons that changes hands each year failed to achieve consensus tonight, but several delegations, not willing to return to their countries “empty-handed”, promised to move the draft treaty to the General Assembly for adoption as early as next week.

The treaty was designed to replace a piecemeal system of global arms restraint with a legally binding instrument aimed at establishing the highest possible common international standards for regulating the $70 billion business, which, it is widely held, fuels conflict, undermines peace and security, threatens social and economic development, and causes untold human suffering.

While agreement on the draft, first articulated last July, was reportedly gaining traction this week, this afternoon, just moments after Conference President Peter Woolcott of Australia announced that the meeting was ready to proceed to adoption, the representative of Iran raised his flag in a “point of order” and outlined the reasons why his delegation could not join consensus, required by the Conference and many other United Nations meetings and forums.

Similar declarations followed by the representatives of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Syria, which, in effect, blocked the treaty’s adoption and drove the meeting into hours of debate, both on the consensus rule and on the merits of the treaty itself.

Concerning the consensus rule, the representative of Mexico said that an overwhelming number of States represented at the Conference were in a position to adopt the text before them. He suggested that the Conference proceed to its adoption without a vote, as it was understood that, at the United Nations, there was no real definition of what “consensus” meant.

The rules of the game, warned the representative of Syria, among others, could not be changed in order to circumvent the consensus rule. He read an opinion by a legal adviser to the effect that “consensus” in fact meant adoption of a decision without formal objections, and stressed that, as he had raised a formal objection to the treaty, consensus had not been achieved.

The representative of the Russian Federation agreed, noting that three countries had stated clearly that they could not join consensus on the text. It was an “unacceptable manipulation” to “simply disregard the rules of multilateral diplomacy” that had been followed for many years, he warned.

Following that discussion, a number of States, unwilling to discard a text that had taken seven years to hammer out, sought an alternative route to its adoption. The representative of Kenya, speaking on behalf of Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, United Kingdom and the United States, proposed that a letter be sent to the Secretary-General requesting him to bring the treaty text to the General Assembly for adoption in that forum. The draft represented the will of the people in the room, and the treaty was needed to reduce human suffering, he added.

“We were close, but not close enough,” said the representative of Pakistan, adding that perhaps a bit more flexibility could have led to a consensus adoption. Pakistan, like other importing, transit and trans-shipment States, brought a different set of concerns to the negotiating table. While he acknowledged efforts to bring some semblance of balance to the text, he said that proposals made by his delegation — including one on the vital issue of weapons production — had been ignored. In addition, the text failed to strike an appropriate balance between importers and exporters, and it glossed over several important questions.

Several other delegations also underscored shortcomings in the text, including omissions that some felt would lead to breaches of sovereignty and territorial integrity. The treaty lacked prohibitions on transfers for use or threat of use of force, including acts of aggression, and granted privileges to exporting States that could be manipulated or used for political reasons.

The representative of India felt that the final draft fell short of producing a text that was clear, balanced, implementable and able to attract universal adherence. The provisions on terrorism and non-State actors, she said, were weak, diffused and found no mention in the specific prohibitions of the treaty. There was a fundamental imbalance in the text, as the weight of obligations was tilted against importing States. As such a State, India would take measures to ensure that the treaty did not affect the stability and predictability of defence cooperation agreements and contracts entered into by her country.

However, many delegations spotlighted the achievements of the treaty text, noting that, while it was not perfect, it represented the wishes of the vast majority of Member States.

The representative of France, for example, deeply regretted that just three delegations had taken the “deplorable decision” to break the consensus. Their action should not negate the fact that all other States had been able to agree on a robust treaty, which would be a major step forward in international law. Other delegations agreed that the treaty was the first of its kind, including both small arms and light weapons and ammunition, and containing important provisions against the commission of genocide and other war crimes. The treaty was another reminder of the benefits of acting in concert for the international good, many said.

The representative of the United Kingdom agreed that a good, strong treaty had been blocked by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Iran and Syria, but that it was nonetheless time to “bring it home”. Like other speakers, she felt that the lack of adoption did not constitute a collapse of the treaty. “This is success deferred, not failure,” she said, strongly supporting Kenya’s proposal to take the document to the General Assembly.

“My people need this treaty more than ever before,” implored the representative of Madagascar, stressing that, like many other speakers today, the illicit trade caused great suffering in Madagascar. She echoed the sentiment that it was time to “seize the moment” and to move forward with what had become a strong and robust treaty. “My delegation cannot go back to my country empty-handed,” she concluded.

Just before the Conference concluded late tonight, Member States adopted a report on the nine-day session (document A/CONF/217/2013/L.2), as revised by the President, following a request made by the Iranian delegation.

In closing remarks, President Woolcott said that the Conference’s inability to have adopted an arms trade treaty had been a “disappointing” result and cast a cloud on the United Nations’ capacity to achieve consensus results on such matters. The text was strong and balanced and, if implemented, “would make a difference”. While his role was finished, the General Assembly would take up the outcome of the Conference on 2 April, he said, adding, “the treaty is coming”.