Will states agree on how to regulate the international weapons trade?

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The United Nations (UN) Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is underway at the UN Headquarters in New York from 18–28 March 2013. In the lead up to the conference – the second of its kind in less than a year – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was confident that member states would overcome their differences and muster the political will needed to agree on this landmark treaty. These negotiations are seen as the most important initiative yet regarding conventional arms regulation within the UN.

The ATT aims to regulate international transfers of both weapons and ammunition and provides for common standards for exporting states. These standards are important for assessing the risk of transferred weapons being used to fuel conflict, arm criminals or abet violations of international humanitarian or human rights law. The treaty is the only path to more accountability and transparency in the arms trade. A robust ATT will also help alleviate the plight of the millions of people affected by conflicts and armed violence and enable the UN to better carry out its mandate to promote global peace, development and human rights. If this treaty is adopted, it will also provide much-needed momentum for wider disarmament and non-proliferation efforts by the international community.

The road to achieving an international treaty to regulate the arms trade has not been easy. After a six-year process, a negotiating conference to develop an ATT was held in July 2012. The conference failed to adopt a treaty, as states were unable to conclude the conference’s work that required agreement on the highest possible common international standards for the international transfer of conventional arms. The outcome of the July 2012 conference is a draft ATT text. In November 2012 the UN General Assembly decided to convene another conference to conclude the work begun in July 2012. The vote on the continuation of the ATT negotiation process had an unprecedented outcome, with 157 states voting in favour of the ATT conference, 18 abstentions and no votes against. However, agreeing on a strong treaty is likely to be extremely challenging. The risk is that the text will be weakened to gain the support of states that are sceptical of the ATT. Following intense lobbying by civil society, the ATT Resolution contains a proviso that if all states are not able to agree to a deal in March 2013, the UN will keep the treaty on its current agenda. This would allow the text to be sent for a final vote at the UN General Assembly later in 2013.

Work on the ATT is by no means over and is particularly important for Africa, as it is one of the regions in the world most affected by the impact of armed conflict. Weapons have streamed into the continent for decades, devastating the lives and livelihoods of countless people and destroying economies. Even though the draft ATT is the result of extensive negotiations and compromises among states, especially those states with significant influence on the international arms trade, the current draft text could in some places undermine the goals and objectives of the treaty.

It is imperative that African states continue to push for a treaty that covers a broad range of weapons, including small arms, light weapons and ammunition. To be effective, governments should be required to regulate the international trade in and transfer of weapons, perform risk assessments before authorising an arms transfer, and track the use of exported arms. The treaty should also prevent governments from transferring arms to any state that is subject to a UN arms embargo and prevent arms transfers in instances where serious human rights violations have occurred in the intended recipient state.

A strong ATT is needed because of the poorly regulated international transfer of conventional arms and the current absence of global standards based on human rights and international humanitarian law to control such transfers. This situation will continue to claim hundreds of thousands of lives each year and blight the livelihoods of millions of people unless the international community takes principled and resolute action to deal with it. The historic lack of action on regulating the international trade in conventional arms is, as the UN Secretary-General stated in July 2012, rather unfortunate. Ban Ki-moon noted rising military expenditure, armed conflict and human rights violations as requiring concerted, collective action on this issue. The ATT must be an international, legally binding instrument based on states’ existing obligations under international law. It must be properly implemented to close the loopholes associated with the uncontrolled trade in conventional weapons and ammunition, including technology transfers. The ATT must also establish binding criteria for analysing international arms transfers on a case-by-case basis and clearly determining when an arms transfer is prohibited.

In an effort to express the importance of the need for an ATT, 18 Nobel Peace Prize Laureates recently wrote to United States President Barack Obama, calling on him to agree to and support the adoption of a strong text. They reminded President Obama of the devastation caused by armed violence and the lack of international regulations, and urged him to join them ‘in this historic endeavour’.

The crux of the matter is that there is a need to establish common international standards for the responsible transfer of all conventional weapons and their ammunition. Since its UN debut in 2006, the ATT debate has been focused around three interlinked topics, i.e. feasibility, parameters and scope. It is primarily within the debate concerning scope that ammunition continues to be raised as a theme of contention. A majority of African states strongly support the inclusion of ammunition within the scope of the ATT and should continue to do so.

While different entities play different roles in the arms trade, all should be bound by a collective responsibility to uphold what must be the key objective of the treaty: the preservation of human security and the prevention of human suffering. Achieving this treaty will require not only good faith among all participants but also an uncompromising dedication to alleviate human suffering.

Gugu Dube, Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria