Will they take their seat at the table? Commonwealth needs to show leadership over Arms Trade Treaty

Conflict, Governance, Humanitarian

Despite the active involvement of many member states, the Commonwealth has never taken a strategic role in the UN’s Arms Trade Treaty negotiations. Today, as a new report by the UK government draws attention to this lack of leadership, Helena Whall asks if it is time for the Commonwealth to take their seat at the negotiating table?

In a report released today, Parliament has drawn attention to the Commonwealth‘s alleged ‘shortcomings’ in relation to this summer’s inconclusive negotiations on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). July’s UN conference set out to agree a legally binding international treaty controlling the sale of conventional arms, but ended
with no treaty being agreed. Oxfam is playing a key role in the Control Arms campaign for a ‘bulletproof’ Treaty.

Following an inquiry into ‘the role and future of the Commonwealth’ – home to 54 countries and over 2 billion people around the world – the Foreign Affairs Committee has released a report which includes an unexpected reference (in paragraph 48, section 4) to the Commonwealth’s lack of ‘coordination and leadership’ during this year’s Diplomatic Conference on the ATT. 

The empty seat at the ATT negotiations reserved for the CommonwealthI say ‘unexpected’, but, as anyone who has been involved in the Treaty process will know, the seat reserved for the Commonwealth’s delegation has been conspicuously empty since the negotiations began in 2009, and no ATT statement has ever been delivered at the United Nations by the association.

This isn’t to say that the Commonwealth has not made any official statements on the Arms Trade Treaty. It has, although they have been tentative at best. At the 2011 Perth Commonwealth Summit Heads of Government committed to: “improve international security by…encouraging participation in the 2012 Diplomatic Conference to negotiate on the basis of consensus an effective Arms Trade Treaty which is of broad universal acceptance.”

This call to arms (excuse the pun) has not gone unheeded by its member states. Indeed, there is wide participation by Commonwealth countries from Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Caribbean in the New York negotiations, with the vast majority working hard to secure a robust and comprehensive Treaty (three of the seven co-authors of the ATT process, those spearheading the negotiations, are from Commonwealth countries: Australia, Kenya and UK). 

The Committee’s report notes the keen participation by member states: individual Commonwealth countries had been well represented among the states pressing (unsuccessfully) for the conclusion of a strong arms trade treaty at the Diplomatic Conference on the issue in New York.

Yet the report contrasts this active and positive involvement of many member states with the “shortcomings in Commonwealth coordination and leadership in arms trade negotiations in the summer of 2012.”

The Report poses a crucial question for the association in relation to the ATT. “Many Commonwealth states suffer from the effects of armed violence, and unregulated trade in arms is widely seen as playing a major part in promoting that violence,” reads the report. 

This is undoubtedly true and is why so many Commonwealth member states want to see a strong Treaty adopted in 2013. So, why isn’t the Commonwealth providing ‘coordination and leadership’?

Clearly for an association which operates on the basis of consensus, it is difficult to achieve agreement between 54 member states and some Commonwealth countries are more supportive of a strong ATT than others. Nevertheless, the association should take heed of the Foreign Affairs Committee Report and consider how best it could support progressive member states in securing a Treaty next year which will help to alleviate the suffering of its many citizens ravaged by the effects of armed violence. 

The Commonwealth should also be looking beyond 2013 and asking what it can do to support its member states, many of which are small and under-resourced, to effectively implement the Treaty. The Commonwealth has a strong track record in the field of technical assistance and cooperation and many member states will be looking to the association for support in ensuring that the Treaty has a real impact on the lives of its citizens.

The March 2013 Diplomatic Conference provides member states with a new opportunity to negotiate a ‘bulletproof’ Arms Trade Treaty. At the United Nations General Assembly in October, Tanzania summed up the sentiments of many African and other Commonwealth states suffering from years of armed violence, when it said: 

“We cannot afford to eradicate poverty  and  achieve  economic growth  and  sustainable  development  in  a  situation  of conflicts and wars. It is imperative therefore to see the birth of an ATT.” 

Commonwealth countries like Tanzania that have experienced too many years of poverty and stunted development due to the unregulated trade in arms will, quite rightly, be keen to see whether the Commonwealth seat at the United Nations is finally occupied in March.


Author: Helena Whall
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.