Why states can’t settle for a weak arms trade treaty

March 26 2013, 5:35 PM  by Lorey Campese

A week has already gone by since the beginning of the second Arms Trade Treaty conference in New York. It is with great disappointment that civil society received the second draft text released Friday night. The substantive modifications necessary to turn the text into an international instrument to prevent human suffering are yet to be made.

The majority of the statespresent in the conference room have repeatedly asked for a robust treaty. This means a treaty that includes ammunition as well as parts and components – one of the most common ways in which guns are traded – to be fully part of the scope. It also means a treaty that accounts for all types of transfers in the scope, especially gifts, loans and leases.

Additionally, the weak threshold of risk assessment is deeply concerning. Had the clause of an overriding risk been in a treaty enforced before the Syrian conflict arose, the violence committed against civilians would still have been permitted thanks to weapons transferred from states like Russia and Iran. This is not just concerning, it is plainly outrageous.

These problems are not new, they have been repeatedly expressed by many countries over the last week, yet the general impression is that their voices and those of their people simply haven’t been heard.

As the end of the conference approaches, an increasing number of states are becoming more vocal champions of what the ATT should be: a legally binding international treaty that prevents the transfer and diversion of ammunition and weapons to conflict-affected states where they are currently being used to commit crimes against humanity, human rights abuses and systematic acts of gender-based violence. This is turn seriously hinders efforts towards sustainable development.

Hence, yesterday 103 states made a common declaration delivered by Ghana calling on the President of the Conference to listen to what they have been asking for since last July. They also expressed their disappointment at the absence of progress made in the newest draft text, which is not likely to majorly change.

If the majority of states remain ignored in order to please major exporters such as the United States, France and Russia, it will therefore once again become an issue of big states versus small states: these are clearly not multilateral negotiations. 

The President of the Conference Peter Woolcott finds himself in a delicate position as he tries reaching consensus between states that are concerned with maintaining the status quo and those who have higher ambitions – the majority of states – to curb conflict and lay the basis for removing the tools of instability. Nevertheless, his imperative remains the necessity to account for all voices, and not simply those from the Permanent Five of the Security Council.

With the direction the most recent text has taken, one has to wonder, why have we spent so many years working towards a comprehensive treaty aiming at ultimately reducing armed violence if we are to empty it of any substance before it is born?

The time is now, plain and simple.

Written by Adeline Guerra of Oxfam New Zealand