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19 July 2012, Vol. 5, No. 12

Editorial: At the heart of it all
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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On Wednesday morning, the Chair of Main Committee I released a new draft text on the goals and objectives of the arms trade treaty (ATT). The most glaring change to the text was the removal of language stating that preventing violations international humanitarian and human rights law is an objective of the treaty. Leaving this out will have serious repercussions for the negotiation of other sections of the treaty and for the treaty’s implementation. It is an absolute necessity that this be corrected.

The draft text introduced today includes five points, apparently constituted as two goals and three objectives. The only reference to humanitarian issues is bullet four in the objectives section, which states that the goals of the treaty are intended to “ensure that the international trade in conventional arms does not contribute [to] or facilitate human suffering.”

Immediately after the release of the draft text, there was an onslaught of opposition from delegations highlighting the problems with this formulation and calling for remedy. The delegations of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Costa Rica, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Liberia, Mexico, New Zealand, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Togo insisted that a reference be made to international humanitarian and human rights law. Norway suggested reintroduction of text stating that the treaty’s goals are intended to “ensure that the international arms trade does not contribute to and facilitate human suffering, including gender-based violence and all other serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.” Most of the above delegations issued support for that formulation.

Without an explicit reference to gender-based violence, international humanitarian law (IHL), and international human rights law (IHRL), the treaty is in substantial danger of failing to meet its original purpose. The representative of CARICOM emphasized that the ATT was never meant to be “just a trade treaty”—rather, it has always had a strong human rights and international law component at its core. Likewise, Costa Rica’s delegation highlighted the importance of ensuring that the treaty’s goals and objectives are consistent with those of the UN General Assembly resolutions that established the ATT process, such as resolutions 61/89, 63/240, and 64/48.

Futhermore, as the Mexican delegation pointed out, each part of the treaty is interrelated. It is thus important to have strong references to IHRL, IHL, and gender-based violence in the goals and the objectives of the treaty so that preventing and reducing violations of these elements guides the implementation of the treaty. For example, the current draft of the criteria section stipulates that a state party “shall prohibit any transfer of any item within the scope of this treaty if the transfer is inconsistent with the goals and objectives and the principles of the treaty.” It likewise stipulates that during risk assessments, states parties must ensure that the transfer is consistent with the goals and objectives of the treaty. If the goals and objectives do not include preventing violations of IHRL, IHL, and gender-based violence, they may not be covered by a strict prohibition in the treaty text.

The absence of explicit references to IHRL, IHL, and gender-based violence in the goals and objectives could also affect other aspects of the treaty’s implementation. Current draft language in the implementation section suggests there may be provisions indicating that transit and transshipment states parties shall monitor and control transfers through their territories if they have grounds to believe the transfer undermines the goals and objectives of the ATT.

Not all governments supported the call for strengthening the relevant provision in the goals and objectives—in fact, the US delegation argued that the current provision related to human suffering should be weakened even further. The US representative argued that conventional arms cause suffering by their very nature, and thus the treaty’s objective should not be to ensure that the arms trade does not contribute to or facilitate such suffering, but rather to merely reduce it. However, this objection demonstrates exactly why explicit references to IHRL, IHL, and gender-based violence are necessary in this section. Through specificity, states parties will be able to make determinations about the impact of the transfer on these particular elements. Weapons are designed and produced to cause harm, as the US delegate argued. But in a treaty designed to regulate the international transfers of arms, the core objective must be to ensure that these arms are not used to violate laws established to prevent suffering and protect human life and dignity.

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