“The imperative” versus “a dividend”

February 13 2012, 1:36 PM  by Ray Acheson

The battle for the soul of the soon-to-be-negotiated Arms Trade Treaty has come down to two competing visions. In one corner, governments calling themselves “pragmatic”, arguing that the ATT should be simple, short and easy to implement—a view often influenced by their respective arms industries. In the other corner, countries and global civil society who believe the July negotiations are a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure the humanitarian imperative is realized in a major arms regulation agreement.

by Daniel Mack, Instituto Sou da Paz, Brazil

Conversely, the “pragmatic”—a term that infers others are unrealistic or utopic—believe the ATT can at best provide a “humanitarian dividend”. In other words, this is an incremental, minimalist, “things are not that bad” stance claiming the ATT’s main objective is not increased human security, though it would be a welcome, albeit small, by-product. The proponents of the “bare bones” ATT often use terms such as “ambitious” or “aspirational” to describe the camp that is not satisfied with “a little better than the status quo”. To them, the ATT is mostly about regulating trade, creating universal but easily avoidable export control criteria, and providing possibly a modicum more of transparency.

It is no wonder that many proponents of an “ATT lite” have heavy arms exports; industry is not usually fond of any sort of regulation to its trade, which more often than not means smaller profit margins. As with alcohol and tobacco, less lethal but also legal, you won’t see industries begging for more restrictions on their international sales. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that “dividend” is usually used in financial markets…

Governments, on the other hand, are in the business of protecting their citizens. Therefore, the “principled” or “humanitarian-minded” ATT advocates posit that regulating the trade of arms cannot be an end in itself, but rather an effective means to reach essential human security objectives. We all agree the ATT will not come close to “resolving all the ills of the world”—it is not a panacea for armed violence nor for any of the other serious problems it could help tackle. Will it end human rights abuses, corruption and poverty? Will it end human rights abuses, corruption and poverty? Of course not — but a robust and comprehensive ATT would significantly diminish their prevalence, an outcome both spectacular and possible to achieve.

Would a “lite” ATT be significantly easier to draft and negotiate than the “robust” ATT civil society is calling for? Perhaps; but with ambitious vision, good-will, cooperation, political capital expenditure, and very long July nights, an ATT that actually matters is within reach for the international community.

From our perspective, that of civil society from Brazil, a country with both thousands of yearly gun homicides and significant arms exports, the choice between these two models is clear: there is no choice. The ATT must handsomely “pay back” the massive investments in time and effort from the overwhelming majority of UN members, as well as in hope from millions of people living under threat and fear of armed violence.