April 28

The cost of commitment

Written by Anna Macdonald, Director of the Control Arms Secretariat
A big win in Sweden

The campaign for the ATT to be robustly implemented continues – but now its suggested that civil society and armed violence survivors pay to prove their commitment

The work is never over. Campaigning to get an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) really was just the start. Now we need to campaign to get governments to implement it. Last week an international meeting in Vienna of Treaty signatories and ratifiers showed that this is going to be a tough job.

I have worked on the ATT since 2002, when together with other international campaigners, we started plans for a global agreement to regulate the arms trade.

And over the past 13 years, I have attended hundreds of national, regional and international meetings and conferences – many organised by the United Nations – as part of the process to create the ATT. I have spoken about the impact of armed violence on people living in conflict zones around the world – and why the $85bn arms trade needs to be brought under control to prevent this suffering.

Never before have I been asked to pay to attend UN meetings in order for our voice to be heard. Of course we have to pay to get there – flights, hotels, local transport – but there has never been an entrance fee to the meeting itself.

In fact as far as I know, no NGO has ever been asked to pay to attend UN meetings ever. That goes for experts who have contributed to processes on everything from climate change to nuclear disarmament to human rights.

Before the proposal was announced, I had no idea that speaking slots at UN meetings could be put up for sale. But according to a small group of countries – France, Finland, the US and UK – they can be – flying in the face of what the UN stands for.

These governments propose that non-State participants should show their commitment to the implementation of the ATT by paying a $500 attendance fee to the annual meeting of Arms Trade Treaty’s Conference of States Parties – the first one is due to take place in Mexico in August this year.

It sets a dangerous precedent. If this small group of governments get their way, NGOs will have to pay to attend all future ATT meetings.

The US, further suggested that those NGOs who wanted to speak should pay, while those who observe only might not have to pay – a clear price tag for democracy here – and an interesting new angle on “free speech.”

France suggested that some NGOs are richer than others, as did the UK, with both countries suggesting that “richer” NGOs could pay for “poorer” ones to attend.

Civil society colleagues from all over the world – as well as diplomats from many states who opposed the idea including Nigeria, New Zealand, South Africa, Costa Rica – were left astounded by this proposal.

Of course NGOs vary in size and budget, but that does not mean that there is spare money lying around, waiting to pay for conference entrance fees. Would there be an income level that determined who was from a “rich” NGO? How would presentations be assessed?

I spoke in Vienna on the role of civil society in supporting effective Treaty implementation. Will I be charged to make this contribution in future? And who will determine how much? Will there be any special offers? Make two speeches get the third free? The mind boggles…

I am amazed that this fee has been proposed. Civil society’s commitment to a strong ATT has never been in doubt before – indeed when the Treaty was adopted, government after government praised our commitment. Now some of those same governments are saying that commitment needs to shine through in dollars and cents.

Civil society participation is not something that goes away once the ink on a treaty is dry. We care about making this Treaty a reality – because its about a lot more than words on a page.

Take my colleague Abjata. As a journalist, he was one of the first people on the scene in the wake of the horrific terrorist attacks at Garisssa University in northern Kenya, when 147 young people were ruthlessly murdered. A week after the attacks, he travelled to Nairobi to address a conference on the ATT attended by governments to tell them why effective implementation of the Treaty is an urgent necessity.

He then travelled to Vienna, to do the same.

Abjata is committed to doing all he can to stop the flood of arms into his country. But the governments arguing in favour of attendance fees say this is not enough. He must put his money where his mouth is and back up his commitment with $500 to show he is genuine.

It would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious.

There are a lot of double-standards going on here. The same governments who argue for“inclusiveness and transparency” also argue for closed meetings, due to “sensitive issues.”

I fear the reasons for this Treaty are getting lost in the process-based discussions of all these preparatory meetings. The aim is to STOP arms transfers that are fueling poverty, conflict and human rights abuses. Governments are supposed to now apply the criteria of the Treaty in a risk assessment of all arms exports, and then explicitly authorize or deny the transfer.

Governments need to remember why this Treaty was adopted in the first place – to reduce the devastation caused by unregulated arms and ammunition flooding into conflict zones and the hands of human rights abusers.

And the voices of those people whose lives are torn apart by armed violence each day – those people who civil society represents – must be heard.

Without charge.

* Please join me in urging France, Finland, the UK and the US to drop this plan.

Anna Macdonald is the Director of the Control Arms coalition. She has worked on the Arms Trade Treaty since 2002.
Follow her on Twitter @annamac33.