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18 July 2012, Vol. 5, No. 11

Editorial: Not just “one of those instruments”
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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Throughout Monday afternoon’s meeting on implementation and Tuesday morning’s meeting on the preamble and principles of the future arms trade treaty (ATT), tensions between what are perceived as “state” interests and “humanitarian” interests remained high. This tension needs to be dismantled. The UN Charter outlines the rights and obligations of member states, but it does so in order to prevent armed conflict and protect humans from the consequences of conflict and violence. This primary objective must be the ultimate guiding principle during negotiation and implementation of an ATT.

What does this mean in practice?

For the preamble it means emphasizing the consequences of the poorly regulated arms trade in all its aspects—consequences for gender-based and sexual violence; human rights; international humanitarian law; socioeconomic development; peace, security, and stability; criminal activities; foreign occupation; overproduction of and excessive spending on arms; etc. It means resolving to address these consequences by providing assistance to victims and survivors. It means resolving to prevent these consequences by effectively regulating the international trade in arms and recalling that the fundamental way to do so is through the “establishment and maintenance of international peace and security with the least diversion of armaments of the world’s human and economic resources,” as spelled out in article 26 of the UN Charter.

In the principles section it means reiterating the “purposes and principles enshrined in the UN Charter,” without selectively pulling out specific ones that promote “national security” of states over human and collective security. It certainly does not mean creating new rights, such as a specific right to manufacture weapons. It also does not mean addressing issues related to civilian ownership of firearms—as Ecuador’s delegation pointed out, it is generally illegal for civilians to own firearms in Ecuador, therefore, recognizing the rights of civilians as such would go against that country’s national laws! This is an inappropriate use of a treaty intended to regulate international transfers of arms.

Of course, it also important to be clear that while the preamble and principles should help with interpreting the treaty, they do not establish common international standards for the arms trade themselves. Therefore, this section must be matched by comprehensive criteria (see, e.g., the editorials from No. 10 and No. 8) and a robust scope (see, e.g., the editorials from No. 9 and No. 7).

Achieving the fundamental goals of the ATT also means the treaty will need strong, clear, and effective implementation mechanisms. Unfortunately, the draft text on implementation does not yet meet this requirement. It suggests notification of export authorizations to relevant transit and transshipment states would be voluntary when it should be mandatory. It indicates that contractual obligations to sell arms would supersede the ATT when clearly the ATT should take precedence. It suggests actions states “may” take on brokering, when such actions should be mandatory. In general, it is vague on binding language. If adopted as written, the implementation section would undermine the treaty’s objectives.

There is little time left to iron out these problems in the various drafts, but doing just that should be the goal of all participating negotiators. Ghana’s delegation noted on 17 July, the ATT “is not just one of those instruments”—it is not specifically or only a humanitarian treaty, a disarmament treaty, nor a trade treaty. “It stands on its own,” the Ghanaian representative said. The only standard “is what the ATT will do for the world.” This standard must not be the promotion of the rights of states over the rights of human beings, but rather, the promotion of the fact that protecting the rights, life, and dignity of human beings will lead to strengthening of security.

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