Floors and ceilings

March 1 2011, 6:36 PM by Ray Acheson

by Jessica Erdman, Global Action to Prevent War

The hopeful buzz around the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) has provided many with optimism about the eventual ratification of the ATT. However, there exists a fundamental disagreement about the nature of the ATT—is the ATT to be a “floor” or a “ceiling”? Proponents of creating a “floor” argue that the ATT should be written with minimum standards, and simply exist as a bare minimum by which states can expand upon in their national capacities, while their counterparts wish to create an all-encompassing, truly universal treaty. Is there any room for compromise?

Before delving yet again into a zero-sum style of deliberations about floors and ceilings, we must take a step back and analyze the ATT’s role in the international community. We need an ATT because such an instrument is absent in the international community—by filling a gap in international law, and thus protecting civilians through regulation of arms trade. The conversation is not about whether gender, education, and human security are relevant, but rather, how to effectively include these linkages without over-reaching or politicizing the issues.

However, human rights, genocide, and crimes against humanity are inherently political issues. The concern that these issues may be politicized is legitimate, but not a strong enough argument to
conclude that we should simply forget about their inclusion. Many delegations have addressed the recent and relevant Security Council resolution 1970 as an example of what the ATT can and should aim to achieve—ensuring the human security of civilians is upheld in humanitarian crises, while providing a clear course of action to do so.

Member states must continue to strive to define the scope and parameters of an ATT—one that does not, of course, impede upon state’s rights as written in Article 51 of the UN Charter, but find a way to balance the necessity of an ATT with their security needs. Thus far, the zero-sum rhetoric of security vs. an arms trade treaty has not proven to be conducive to the debate. There exists a space between the floor and ceiling—essentially, a compromise. However, a compromise cannot be formed until we re-evaluate the manner in which we see an ATT.

As the debate moves forward to discussions on international cooperation and framework for implementation, the question of floors and ceilings will undoubtedly re-appear. However, we cannot afford to continue to analyze, vis-à-vis, whether development, economics, human rights, or gender are important enough to be considered in tandem with the ATT. Instead, we must pursue self-reflective and vigorous debate on the ATT, with the knowledge that the ATT’s unique and unprecedented role as a needed instrument to prevent human suffering.