ATT 4th PrepCom: Day 3: “Rights,” “traps,” and “balance”

February 15 2012, 6:15 PM  by Ray Acheson

On Wednesday morning, states continued discussing the provisional rules of procedure for the arms trade treaty (ATT) negotiating conference. On Tuesday evening, the Chair conducted open-ended consultations on this topic, which he found had a “constructive spirit when it comes to finding formulas that accommodate to the degree possible the different schools of thought.” However, delegations continued discussing the rules in plenary, in anticipation of another round of consultations to follow.

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


The Mexican delegation, after pondering the consultations of the previous evening, mused in the plenary meeting that the principle of “one country, one vote” is the key that has allowed the United Nations to function. Work conducted within the General Assembly or under its mandate “cannot ask that countries give up this right.”

Furthermore, the delegation argued, in the past some countries have used the idea of consensus to limit progress for the majority and then did not go on to sign or ratify the resulting agreements. Earlier this week, some states argued that unanimity is the only way to achieve universality of the final treaty. However, the Mexican delegation questioned this reasoning, noting that consensus has lead to minimalist treaties that do not necessarily achieve universality or even entry into force.

Mexico thus argued that asking countries to give up their right to vote as set out in the UN Charter is “too high of a cost” and would likely lead to a limited treaty and not ensure universalization. It noted that if all participating countries made a commitment to ratify the treaty obtained by unanimity, “then we would rethink our position,” but expressed doubt of that possibility.

Other delegations continued putting their weight behind one or another interpretation of consensus and operative paragraph 5 (OP5) of UN General Assembly resolution 64/48, the resolution that established the ATT process.

Bangladesh, Belarus, BurundiColombia, Denmark, and Ecuador called for decisions to be made “on the basis of consensus,” as stipulated in OP5. However, these states, as well as CARICOM and Niger, argued that consensus does not mean unanimity and that one or two states should not be able to derail the process or block the final text. Senegal’s delegation argued that consensus is not the only way for moving forward and that it opens up a trap for potential stalemate. CARICOM supported Mexico’s proposal for the rules to provide for two-thirds majority voting if all attempts to arrive at consensus fail.

Ireland and Poland argued that the provisional rules on decision-making reflect the intentions of General Assembly expressed in OP5. The Australian delegation said the rules of procedure must strike a balance between the need for progress and to reach consensus. Burundi indicated it is comfortable with following UN rules of procedure for conducting the negotiations in July.

The Czech Republic, Denmark, and Zambia said that the reference to the “basis of consensus” only applies to the adoption of final text. The Czech delegation also argued that this approach has been widely applied in past; represents well-established UN practice; and has worked.

However, the delegation of Uruguay expressed concern about paragraph 3 of rule 33, which states that the conference “shall adopt the final text of the treaty instrument by consensus”. Uruguay worried that this could result in a weak treaty. Qatar’s delegation suggested deleting this paragraph and also deleting paragraph 1 of rule 35, which says that all decisions of substance “other than the adoption of the final text shall be taken by a two-thirds majority of the representatives present and voting”. This would have the result of not necessarily adopting the final text by consensus, but certainly taking procedural decisions by vote.

Meanwhile, the delegations of Pakistan, Syria, and Venezuela argued that OP5 is clear and does not need elaboration. Syria’s delegation argued that other delegations are trying to “reinterpret” the principle of consensus. Venezuela’s delegation said that participants must avoid falling into the trap of “abandoning this conference to the whims of the majority”.

The Moroccan delegation argued that whether the conference resorts to consensus or voting, no one will be giving up any right or power. It said that OP5 gives a mandate consisting of two elements that are “interlinked and equally important”: to agree on a strong and robust treaty and to do so on the basis of consensus. Therefore, Morocco argued, consensus does not necessarily mean the lowest common denominator and that “resorting” to voting is not the answer to blocked progress; that it could further jeopardize the process.

Iran’s delegation argued that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is an example of why states should not “fear” consensus. In 1996, after the Conference on Disarmament had spent several years negotiating the Treaty, consensus on its adoption was blocked by India. The Australian delegation introduced the final treaty text to the UN General Assembly in a subsequent session, where the Treaty was adopted. The Iranian delegation argued this was proof that consensus does not have mean the end of the ATT.

(Note: What the Iranian delegation failed to mention is that the CTBT has a serious loophole: it does not prevent subcritical testing, which allows for “improvements” of nuclear weapons without necessitating an explosive test. This was the basis of India’s objection to the Treaty. Furthermore, while the General Assembly adopted the CTBT, it still has not yet entered into force 16 years later because the requisite states—including Iran—have not yet ratified it.)

NGO access and participation
The delegations of Bangladesh, Denmark, Ghana, Ireland, Morocco, Niger, Poland, Senegal, Uruguay, Zambia, and Zimbabwe welcomed the continuing participation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society groups in the ATT process. The delegation of Ghana issued support for Norway’s proposal that all meetings should remain open until otherwise specified.

Denmark, Ghana, IrelandPoland, Senegal, and Zambia called for NGOs to have more opportunities to address the conference than just one meeting. In fact, the Zambian delegation called on the ATT negotiating conference to “defer to best practice of the United Nations in humanitarian negotiations including allowing NGOs to take up the floor in all open meetings as often as they wished and on any article or articles rather than restricting them to one stand-alone meeting.”

The Moroccan delegation, agreeing that NGOs have valuable expertise to contribute to the process, said it was “surprised” to hear calls for increased NGO presentations. Instead, the delegation argued, the conference should take better advantage of this expertise by making it available to the negotiation process throughout all of its organs. Morocco suggested that any committee negotiating draft text should be able to invite one or two NGO representatives to answer relevant questions by delegations in a limited time.

Pakistan and Zimbabwe said they support the current draft rules on NGO participation. 

Chair’s text
The delegations of Pakistan and Syria called for the thematic compilation of views of all states to all PrepComs to be submitted as background documentation to the negotiation conference. Pakistan’s delegation argued that while some countries believe the views of all delegations have been taken on board in the Chair’s text from July 2011, it does not share this view. It complained of having submitted proposals to the Chair’s February 2011 paper that were not reflected in the July version.

On the other hand, the delegations of CARICOM, Denmark, and Zambia argued that Chair’s text is a good basis for moving forward in July at the negotiating conference.

Parallel meetings
The delegations of Ireland and Zimbabwe supported CARICOM’s proposal that a daily report-back mechanism be instituted at the July negotiations if simultaneous meetings are deemed necessary, to ensure that small delegations are kept informed of all decisions. The Moroccan delegation, however, said that it does not want to just be kept informed of what is going on at the negotiations—it wants to be involved in all stages of the negotiations.