ATT 4th PrepCom: Day 1: Questions of consensus and transparency

February 14 2012, 6:42 AM  by Ray Acheson, Reaching Critical Will

The opening day of the fourth and final preparatory committee (PrepCom) for the UN conference on the arms trade treaty (ATT) focused largely on the key procedural issues that it will have to address in order to ensure a smooth and effective negotiating process in July. Perhaps surprising to some, the PrepCom managed to adopt the draft agenda for the negotiating conference by noon (the version available now was slightly amended). The provisional rules of procedure, however, proved a little more difficult. With a short session ahead to deal with some fairly controversial issues, delegations began discussing two of the stickiest questions: consensus and civil society access.

by Ray Acheson, Reaching Critical Will of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

As several pieces in the first ATT Monitor noted, what consensus is and when it will be applied remains an open-ended question. Several delegations, including the Arab Group, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, India, Israel, Nicaragua, Russian Federation, Syria, and Turkey emphasized that operative paragraph 5 (OP5) of UN General Assembly resolution 64/48 dictates the rules of procedure for the negotiating conference. This paragraph states that conference “will be undertaken in an open and transparent manner, on the basis of consensus, to achieve a strong and robust treaty.”

The Russian delegation said it was “unpleasantly surprised” by the “innovative” rules on the consensus issue provided in the provisional draft. As written, the provisional rules essentially say that decisions on matters of substance will be taken by consensus when possible but that a vote can be called, in which case it would be taken by a 2/3 majority; and that matters of procedure can be adopted with a simple majority vote. It also indicates that the final text would be adopted by consensus.

This formulation upset the states listed above, which maintain that resolution 6/48 is clear on consensus. The Russian delegation even argued that since OP5 says that the consensus-based process is mandated in order to “achieve a strong and robust treaty,” it would be impossible to achieve such a treaty without operating by consensus.

However, Norway’s delegation pointed out that 64/48 does not actually indicate a) what consensus means; or b) what decisions consensus should apply to. In the eyes of many delegations, 64/48 is far from definitive on this issue and therefore the provisional rules of procedure as laid out here are within the possible parameters of the resolution.

It’s clear that some states want to interpret consensus as meaning a unilateral veto. However, others feel this undermines the principle of consensus, which they see as the act of striving for the broadest agreement possible, not preventing any agreement from being reached. To this end, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, CARICOM, Mexico, and Norway indicated they support the rules on consensus as written.

NGO participation
Several delegations, including those of the Arab Group, strongly supported NGO participation in the negotiating conference. The Group in fact emphasized the importance of the “full implementation of principles of transparency in all phases and mechanisms of the proceedings.” The Group did not as a bloc address the relevant rules, however.

Rule 57.1 states that plenary meetings of the conference will be open unless decided otherwise. 57.2 states that as a general rule, meetings of “other organs” of the conference will be closed unless decided otherwise.

The Mexican delegation firmly argued that given the important work of civil society on the ATT and the commitment of the process to transparency, rule 57.2 should not be necessary. The Norwegian delegation agreed, saying that 57.2 should either be deleted or reversed, to state that all meetings should be open until closed, rather than closed until open. CARICOM also agreed 57.2 should be reconsidered.

Others, however, though generally supportive of civil society, felt this was going too far. Sweden and the United Kingdom suggested general flexibility but said that 57.2 should be maintained. The Egyptian delegation agreed, noting that the types of meetings that would likely be closed would be those in which states are negotiating draft text, arguing that civil society should not have access to these proceedings in order to make them as “constructive” as possible. The Russian delegation also issued its support for keeping rule 57 as is.

The other main NGO issue to arise was the number of times NGOs could address the negotiating conference. The European Union, Brazil, and Norway argued that accredited NGOs should be able to address the conference several times rather than just once.

Where things stand now
Neither the questions of NGO access nor the rule of consensus were settled by the end of the first day; the Chair indicated he would continue bilateral consultations and discussions will continue in plenary.