Getting it right: the final push to negotiate a strong Arms Trade Treaty

Conflict, Governance, Humanitarian, Rights

Advocacy officer Helena Whall on the forthcoming historic opportunity to create a binding robust treaty that will regulate the international trade in arms. 

More than 1,500 people lose their lives as a direct result of armed violence each day. That is one person, per minute, each and every day, in every continent of the globe. 

For more than a decade, ordinary people across the world have campaigned for a treaty to bring the poorly regulated international arms trade under control. This goal is now in sight; from March 16th to 28th, member states of the United Nations will gather in New York for a two week conference on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). 
Section of the Getting it right briefing paper jacket

This is the final chance for states to agree a treaty that will effectively regulate the international trade in conventional weapons. It is an occasion that must not be squandered.

The need for an Arms Trade Treaty is greater than ever. The violence surrounding the present Syrian uprising, in which nearly 70,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands wounded, has been fuelled by arms transfers to both the Syrian government and rebel forces. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

High standards before universal agreement

History shows that the most effective treaties are born from strong, comprehensive standards, established from the start. Treaties with weak provisions – no matter how broad their support – rarely become stronger over time. Even where important countries haven’t signed up; strong treaties tend to have a positive influence on the actions of non-signatories. 

The majority of states want a strong treaty, but some, including major arms exporters, seem prepared to compromise on high standards in favour of getting widespread agreement. 

The ATT must start life as a strong treaty with the highest common standards.A treaty that is weak, with compromised text, will do nothing to prevent the irresponsible arms transfers that fuel human suffering. It will simply underscore the status-quo. The ATT must start life as a strong treaty with the highest common standards.
Negotiations in July 2012 failed to reach agreement on an ATT despite the best efforts of the majority of states. However, it did generate a draft prospective treaty which includes some very positive elements. But many of these could be undermined by a number of weaknesses and loopholes that could fundamentally affect its effectiveness and, worse, eventually legitimise existing practices of irresponsible arms transfers. 

In its current form, the treaty does little to increase responsibility and restraint in the international arms trade, leaving millions of people at the mercy of irresponsible arms deals. 

Getting it right: The pieces that matter for the Arms Trade Treaty published today by Oxfam and Saferworld, outlines the key weaknesses in the current draft treaty and, using case studies illustrates the impact that a comprehensive and robust treaty could have on the many conflicts currently raging around the globe. And importantly, the paper makes recommendations on what a strong treaty would look

Recommendations for a strong arms trade treaty

Getting it right briefing paper - detail from cover image

  • Comprehensive in scope.  It must control all types of conventional weapons, ammunition and munitions, and parts and components.  It must also cover all the ways in which international arms transfers take place.
  • Robust criteria. It should ensure that arms are not transferred if there is a substantial risk that they would be used to violate international humanitarian or human rights law, exacerbate armed violence and conflict (including gender based armed violence), encourage corruption, or undermine development.
  • Incorporate public reporting. Members states should be obliged to report all transfers. In addition activities like brokering must be carefully and comprehensively covered. 
  • Come into force as soon as possible. The Final Provisions must ensure the earliest entry into force for the treaty, and define amendment provisions that allow the States Parties to revisit the treaty over time.

While this represents a significant list of challenges, the March 2013 diplomatic conference provides negotiators with the opportunity to achieve a robust and comprehensive ATT. States must ensure that the treaty text establishes high common international standards, while resisting pressures to water down provisions or seek a broad consensus.

In March, the focus must be on getting the treaty right, at the onset, not at some point in the future. The aim should be for a treaty that will immediately and for the first time curb the irresponsible trade in arms, save lives, and reduce the violence and poverty suffered by thousands affected by the ravages of war.

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