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The state of play of the #ArmsTreaty negotiations

by Ben Murphy

Treaty criteria

The criteria are the rules under which States will make decisions on whether or not to authorise an arms transfer. In brief, transfers would not be allowed to States which breach international humanitarian or human rights law; where conflict would be fuelled; when there is a risk of corruption or diversion of arms from the intended recipient. The key to the effectiveness of the treaty criteria is something called the ‘chapeau’ – which says that States ‘shall not’ transfer arms to recipients where there is substantial risk these criteria would be breached. Treaty skeptics want a ‘take into account’ ‘chapeau’ which would give States the option to ignore any criteria they did not wish to apply. Strong criteria are vital to an effective treaty, and are opposed by treaty skeptics who fear they will be cut off from arms supplies if they cannot meet the global standards set. So far, many States, including Egypt, China, Cuba, etc have questioned criteria such as human rights as being “subjective”; while the US, a key player, has made it clear that it does not want a treaty with ‘shall not’ language applying to any criteria beyond respect for UN Charter and UNSC embargoes.

Treaty scope

For the ATT to be effective at preventing atrocities, NGOs and treaty supporters have made it clear that the treaty must regulate the trade of all major weapon systems and armaments — not just those specifically designed for offensive combat operations and military arms. This must include small arms and light weapons (SALW), ammunition and equipment, including parts and components, and police and security equipment used for internal repression. The Chair’s paper does not cover police and security equipment, and especially in light of the events of the Arab Spring, NGOs and supportive States are pushing hard for the inclusion of this vital category of equipment. Nor does it cover military data-processing and communication systems, which can divert significant resources for development; help identify, acquire and aim at unlawful targets; and/or spy on civilians, civil society or political opposition and therefore constitute serious violations of civil and political rights.

Some countries, including the US, Iran and India, wish to exclude ammunition from the scope of the treaty. However, many States are forcefully arguing that because abundant supplies of ammunition are the single greatest factor in intensifying a conflict and multiplying humanitarian harm, it is vital to include ammunition in the scope of the treaty.

A map depicting States' positions on including ammunition in the scope of the Arms Trade Treaty. Courtesy:

Also contentious for some skeptics is the inclusion of small arms and light weapons. SALW and their ammunition are precisely the weapons that cause most harm in Africa, and African States (except Egypt and Ethiopia) are united in insisting on their inclusion.

A map depicting States' positions on including 'small arms and light weapons' (SALW) in the scope of the Arms Trade Treaty. Courtesy:

Treaty implementation

Treaty supporters are adamant that the treaty needs effective reporting and transparency measures, so that implementation can be properly measured. This would include open and yearly reporting of arms transfers, and review conferences and regular meetings of States parties where contested transfers could be debated. This would entail a secretariat for the treaty (a so-called ‘Implementation Support Unit’) which is sufficiently resourced and has the mandate to consolidate and analyse data from national reports to identify discrepancies, gaps, and potential breaches of the treaty. Such a mechanism would allow effective operation of the treaty and a gradual strengthening of the global norms embodied in the treaty. While key States and exporters, such as Russia or China, remain free of any transparency obligations be they at national, regional or international level, many skeptics are set against transparency in the arms trade, failing to recognise that transparency in arms control is usually beneficial to the national security of States involved.

Outcome of the conference

Many States supportive of a robust ATT are becoming worried about the likelihood of a weak treaty being pushed through in July. A minority of skeptical States are increasingly vocal and potentially disruptive, while some main exporting States seem more concerned about ‘just getting a treaty’ with all their competitors on board than about achieving a strong treaty firmly based on international law that will have support from a majority of States.

This state of play means that supportive States, in partnership with NGOs, must do everything they can to make sure that this historical opportunity to finally make an international treaty preventing weapons being used to perpetrate atrocities is not wasted.

What you can do

We have one shot! In July, progressive States must prevent that the “consensus tyranny” produces a weak treaty that legitimises the current status quo. You can help by signing the global Control Arms petition, calling on your government to do everything it can to agree to a robust, bulletproof ATT in July 2012.

Learn more about States’ positions on all the different issues that together will make or break the a robust ATT

Add your voice to the Global Petition urging governments to CONTROL ARMS NOW