Articles of interest

March 1 2011, 8:06 PM  by Dr. Robert Zuber, Global Action to Prevent War

Consistent with other ATT preparatory sessions, diplomats have had to wrestle long and hard with what Tuesday’s CARICOM statement identified as the balance between the right of states to acquire arms and the various legal obligations – human rights, humanitarian UN Charter-based, and more – that constitute valuable criteria by which arms transfers are determined to be legitimate or not.

As we know for our work on civilian protection and ‘responsibility to protect,’ sovereignty and territorial integrity are major issues of concern for states.   Many smaller states have experiences with seemingly benign UN tools and resolutions being employed as a pretext for intervention in domestic affairs.  There is considerable resistance to giving the Security Council or any other UN-authorized body additional authority to intrude in the internal matters of governments, including on arms transfers.

Over the past two days, several delegations have reinforced the need to respect sovereignty, citing Article 51 of the UN Charter as the basis for states’ rights to acquire arms in accordance with self-defense and other legitimate security interests.  We do not challenge this right, but do believe that it has a context in international relations that is not always enhanced by virtue of an imprecise application of Article 51. The Article is worded as follows:

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.

The Article clearly recognizes a right to self-defense in cases of immanent attack.   However the way that states often invoke this right to ‘self-defense,’ which has achieved almost customary usage in discussions like the ATT, is actually more arbitrary and less contextual than that granted by this Article.

Our preference, reflected in numerous UN resolutions on disarmament, is for states to pursue their legitimate security interests – including arms transfers — based on the principle of undiminished security at the lowest possible level of armaments.  But we acknowledge that there is no standard definition of ‘lowest possible’ on which nations have agreed.  Moreover, the Article appears to strengthen the hand of the Council in security matters in ways that would actually appear to compromise rather than broaden sovereignty.

Since the ATT does not seek to prohibit legitimate arms transfers between states, there is no particular need to define clearly in this context notions of ‘legitimate self-defense’ or ‘undiminished security.’   But Article 51 is probably not the most appropriate citation to underscore the right to self-defining, self-defense or to any other subjective notions of ‘sufficiency’ in the security area.

On Tuesday, many delegates to the ATT wisely called for more precise definitions of key terms related to criteria and parameters for legitimate arms transfers.   We respectfully request the same clarity on the use of Article 51.