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ATT Monitor, Vol. 12, No. 6

Effective ATT implementation means putting people above profits
28 August 2019


Ray Acheson

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As Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) states parties and signatories resumed their “general debate” on Tuesday morning, the key sentiment expressed by most delegations was that the Treaty’s potential as a humanitarian, life-saving mechanism is not yet being appropriately utilised. Implementation failures, primarily by arms exporting and importing countries, mean that the flow of weapons—and thus the violence—has not been significantly curtailed since the Treaty’s entry into force five years ago. In the meantime, the arms industry continues to produce and push the sale of these weapons into zones of conflict and violence, a point raised by several delegations. States parties are also not sufficiently complying with their reporting obligations under the Treaty, meaning that transparency of even the ATT-regulated segment of the international arms trade is decreasing. These are serious challenges with which ATT states, and the non-governmental and international organisations working on these issues, need to grapple.

Many states, in particular those suffering from armed violence, armed conflict, and occupation, have highlighted the humanitarian objectives of the ATT. Argentina, Barbados, Chile, Guatemala, Ireland, Lebanon, Mozambique, Palestine, Peru, Samoa, Senegal, and Togo, among others, spoke about their commitment to the Treaty in their quest to curb proliferation of weapons and their use against civilian and civilian infrastructure. Many delegations similarly pointed out the importance of the ATT for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), arguing that preventing violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by restricting the global arms trade is an imperative part of fostering sustainable human and economic development.

These are the same arguments that were made back when the ATT was being negotiated. It is frustrating that we cannot claim even limited success thus far. It is not yet clear what impact the ATT’s restrictions and prohibitions have had on actually stopping arms transfers that might have led to or perpetuated violence. But we have plenty of examples of cases in which the arms transfers were not stopped, leading to grave humanitarian disasters. It’s beyond time for states parties to seriously address this problem; as Poland suggested, future conferences of states parties should be used to talk about problematic arms transfers. Of course, non-compliance with the ATT’s restrictions and prohibitions on arms transfers does not mean the Treaty is useless or bad. On the contrary, it is to say that states parties—particular arms producing and exporting states parties—need to get serious about their obligations, fully implement the Treaty, and stop putting profits above people. As Côte d’Ivoire said, states need to go beyond economic interests of the arms trade to take into account the international community’s interest in peace.

Shifting away from profits and the perpetuation of violence towards people and peace requires a reconfiguration of how we think about, and talk about, issues of security. It means challenging long-held norms about weapons bestowing power and invulnerability upon their bearers to understanding weapons for what so many delegations recognise them as—tools of repression, occupation, violence, destruction, and death. As Jamaica’s delegation noted, weapons are used to perpetuate instability and insecurity. During the negotiation of the ATT, much emphasis was placed on not undermining the “legitimate” trade in arms whilst regulating it sufficiently to prevent human suffering and the “illicit trade”. But this misses the fact that all weapons can contribute to insecurity, violence, and conflict. It also ignores that to those seeking profits from their arms industries, all arms trade is legitimate. This is why the UK government, for example, can claim at the ATT conference of states parties that it has one of the most robust arms export systems in the world even while its Court of Appeals has just ruled that its arms transfers to Saudi Arabia are unlawful. It’s why Australia, which was one of the ATT’s “champions” during negotiation, has declared its intention of being one of the world’s top ten largest arms exporters. The examples could go on; the point is that there is a profound disconnect between this notion of the “legitimate” arms trade and what is actually happening in the world—profound enough to render the term meaningless. But this is difficult to talk about in the ATT context and still be taken seriously. Which brings us back to Monday’s conversation about increasing gender diversity in arms control and disarmament.Nearly every delegation seemed to indicate support for increasing women’s participation in ATT delegations. Many of these even argued that this participation has to be meaningful—it needs to go beyond numbers and actually address gender inequalities in terms of who gets to speak and who gets to participate in decision-making. From WILPF’s perspective, we also believe there is inequality in who gets to participate in norm-setting: whose voices are considered credible and realistic, who is taken seriously in putting forward ideas—especially when these ideas contradict or challenge established normative perspectives that have been developed over centuries by a particular subset of the global population—predominantly white, western, heteronormative men. To change whose perspectives are considered credible and realistic  means increasing diversity of participation not just by adding women, but also by including those who have survived the violence being discussed and those who have been traditionally excluded from these spaces: LGBT+ people, nonwhite and nonwestern people, people with disabilities, and those with socioeconomic disadvantages. Conversations at the international level about weapons and war are almost never led by—or have meaningful participation of—those who live with the daily realities of either. Thus perspectives that challenge concepts like the “legitimate” trade in arms or that demand we prioritise human welfare over making a buck by selling bombs are generally not seriously considered. To truly address the humanitarian imperatives that have allegedly brought states to the ATT, the perspectives of those who live with the consequences of the arms trade should be the ones that matter most, not least.

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