How the UK can be a global champion for the ATT

Written by Ben Donaldson, UNA-UK

So far, April has been a big month for the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).  Five out of the world’s top ten exporters have ratified the Treaty, including the UK.   This takes us more than halfway to 50 ratifications – the requisite number which triggers the 90 day countdown for the Treaty to become operational.

In a 2 April press release, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said “The Arms Trade Treaty is the result of outstanding collaboration between the government, civil society and industry all working together for a Treaty that will save lives, and I am proud of the part the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has played.”

I agree.  The UK should indeed be proud of its role in bringing about the ATT.  However, the Treaty will not save lives by being ratified alone; strong and widespread implementation is what will make the difference.  The real work starts now.

If the UK is serious about its commitment to saving lives and reducing the fallout from the under regulated arms trade, there are many things it can and should do.  The UK can use its influence and extensive diplomatic networks to encourage others to ratify.  The UK can provide international assistance and ratification/implementation support to those less well-resourced countries.  The UK can speak out, and where possible, take action, against countries and arms export practices that are not in keeping with the Treaty.

But most of all, the UK can lead by example and implement a strong interpretation of the Treaty.  This will give the UK the credibility, moral clout and inclination to be a compelling global champion for the Treaty allowing the other points above to be pursued with ardour and success.

As the 6th largest arms exporter for the period 2008-2012, accounting for 4% of world deliveries, the UK is a major exporter that, with the right approach, could make a major impact on the success of the Treaty.

Parliamentary meeting on UK ratification

Last week I attended a parliamentary meeting organised by the British Group Inter-Parliamentary Union (BGIPU) on the UK’s ratification of the ATT.  Chaired by Alistair Burt MP, participants included Sir John Stanley MP, Chair of the Committees on Arms Export Controls, Matthew Rowland, UK Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva and Anna Macdonald, incoming director of Control Arms, as well as various parliamentarians and civil society reps.

Sir John reminded us that there appears to be plenty more the UK can do to get its own house in order vis-à-vis arms exports.  Last year his Committee revealed that over 3000 licences worth more than £12bn had been granted to supply strategic controlled goods to countries the UK Government itself had dubbed ‘of human rights concern’, including licences for crowd control ammunition to Saudi Arabia and assault rifles to Sri Lanka.

On the face of it, these licences are at odds with the UK’s commitment to the Arms Trade Treaty and risk tarnishing the UK’s reputation as a leading ATT advocate.  By clarifying, and where appropriate, rectifying its position on arms exports to these countries the UK will be on much firmer footing when championing the Treaty.

Later on the meeting’s focus turned to UK efforts to encourage other states to ratify.  During the discussion, participants made it clear that promotion of the ATT should come before promotion of arms sales, and others suggested that the status with regards to ATT ratification of countries could be taken into consideration as one of the factors when considering granting export licences to that country or for example, allowing them to attend DSEI arms fairs in the UK. This idea was acknowledged, but others pointed out potential problems, using the US as an example of a key business partner who is unlikely to ratify the Treaty anytime soon.  Continuing the conversation, it was proposed that that the idea could be applied on a more de facto basis, with countries such as the US, that broadly observe the measures of the Treaty despite not having ratified, being deemed responsible importers.

The meeting was an excellent reminder of the hard work ahead for both the UK Government and UK civil society if the Treaty is to make the difference on the ground we all want to see.

Ben Donaldson is Communications and Campaigns Officer at the United Nations Association – UK (UNA-UK), where he leads the organisations work on various campaigns, including on the Arms Trade Treaty and lethal autonomous robots.  UNA-UK is the UK’s leading source of independent analysis on the UN, and a UK-wide grassroots movement. Follow him on twitter @benaldson