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18 March 2013: Vol. 6, No. 1

Another chance for the arms trade treaty
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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At the end of last July, many people—diplomats, civil society activists, UN staff—went home disappointed. After six years of preparatory work, negotiations had failed to produce a robust treaty to regulate international transfers of conventional weapons. These next nine days will offer a second chance to get it right. We must seize this opportunity to develop a treaty that will truly make an impact on armed violence.

From WILPF’s perspective, which is shared by many NGO and diplomatic colleagues, our disappointment in July was not because a treaty had not been adopted. In fact, WILPF was relieved that the text under consideration at the time did not become the final treaty. That text was, and still is, insufficient to prevent human suffering caused by armed violence and includes many significant loopholes. Through the course of negotiations and the inevitable compromises reached, the text began looking less and less like the instrument that civil society and many governments had been campaigning for since the 1990s.

Originally, our intention was to create a legally-binding treaty international instrument that would decrease the accessibility of weapons that are used to kill civilians, destroy lives and livelihoods, and undermine human rights and development. We also intended the arms trade treaty to be a tool to increase the transparency of the arms trade, not to facilitate or legitimize it.

Yet by the end of July, the draft treaty text provided neither for effective prevention of armed violence nor transparency. In fact, the draft text contains several grave loopholes that could provide legal cover for arms transfers that should be outlawed.

This is the worst of any possible outcome: producing not just an ineffective ATT, but one that actually facilitates or legitimizes arms transfers, especially those that will result in armed violence.

In its recent assessment of the draft treaty, Action on Armed Violence describes it as an “arms trader’s charter,” because the language is so ambiguous and oddly structured. This ambiguity ultimately provides coverage for arms traders to function “legitimately” under the treaty’s provisions.

That is but one of many problems with the current draft. The treaty’s provisions on scope, criteria, brokering, and reporting, among other things, need serious work in order for the treaty to meaningfully contribute to human security.

Thus WILPF and others were glad to have these last few months to regroup and to strategize on how to develop a stronger text this March. We and many other civil society and international organizations have produced analysis of the draft text and recommendations on how to fix it in order to ensure that the ATT is robust, comprehensive, and effective.

In the end it will be up to UN member states to ensure that the treaty is as strong as possible. The best outcome is not just any treaty at all. The only acceptable outcome will be a strong treaty. The objective from the very beginning has been an effective instrument to reduce human suffering; this must remain the goal throughout negotiations. The lowest common denominator might be fine for regulating trade in other items, but when it comes to tools of death and destruction, only the highest possible standards will do.

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