ATT Monitor, Vol. 11, No. 5

Editorial:  Action, transparency, trust
26 August 2018

Allison Pytlak

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The main message from the Japanese presidency over the Fourth Conference of States Parties (CSP4) to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) has been that of “Action, Transparency, Trust”, a play on the Treaty’s acronym.

Following the conclusion of CSP4, how does the ATT measure up in these areas?

There is definitely significant “action” taking place and a feeling that the Treaty is starting to come into its own. Fundamental institutions and frameworks are up and running. There is much in-country and intercessional work occurring that at present is well resourced, although the problem of outstanding financial contributions should not be downplayed. There is a steady stream of research reports, tools, and guides being put forward, as was illustrated by a very active side event schedule at CSP4 where many such items were presented as well as by the lists of existing or proposed resources set forth by the working groups, and approved by the Conference. States parties seemed especially to appreciate the opportunity to discuss challenges relating to arms diversion and identify concrete ways to operationalize related ATT provisions.

Yet the flurry of action around capacity building and information exchange, however much it is needed, cannot become a smokescreen for states parties to hide behind in not meeting all other Treaty commitments. For example, the irony of the United Kingdom, a country that blithely violates some of the ATT’s most central and important provisions, stating on Friday that it would not want states that cannot meet their financial obligations to join the ATT was not missed. The Philippines challenged criticism from a civil society organisation about its domestic human rights record and related implications for weapons import, highlighting instead a cheerier picture of progress on ATT ratification that enjoys support at the highest political level.

The danger worth flagging is that positive action in Treaty implementation and capacity building by well-resourced states cannot become a substitute for non-compliance in other areas lest it perpetuate a two-tiered system of expectations and accountability among states parties.  The Treaty was always meant to level the playing field in arms transfer control by establishing common standards, which implies a phase in which some states parties will need to develop their systems, capacity, and legal frameworks so as to “catch up” to those that are more advanced in these areas. As we’ve argued before, this doesn’t let those countries off the hook—the knowledge and resources that they are sharing with others must be simultaneously and rigorously applied in their own practice. "Accountability" must accompany action. 

All of which brings us to transparency. The ATT’s reporting requirements are meant to be a vehicle for transparency within the Treaty and across the international arms trade more broadly. CSP4 picked up the recommendations of the Working Group on Transparency and Reporting (WGTR) that are mostly intended to increase the reporting rate by identifying and overcoming challenges but these initiatives will need to also address inconsistencies and omissions in the reports that are turned in so as to make the exercise a meaningful one.

Lastly, trust is what results when the other two factors are in place, and will in theory engender further action and enable on-going transparency. In his remarks as incoming president of the Fifth Conference of States Parties to the ATT (CSP5), Ambassador Kārkliņš of Latvia described the role he will play as “low cost, but high intensity” with much pressure to, among other things, not lose the trust of states parties.  Some conference presidents or chairpersons attempt to keep trust by avoiding at all cost anything that is deemed too progressive or “difficult” or catering to the interests of a powerful few. This usually comes at a cost, as it is an approach that risks side-lining the frustrations or priorities of other states and can provoke reaction, as was witnessed at the Third Review Conference of the UN Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons (RevCon3) not to mention within nuclear weapons fora. It is hoped that with the Treaty infrastructure largely now on sound footing, states parties and the new president will be emboldened to widen the discussion in new ways.  

This would be true of not just tackling politically hard questions, but giving space for other topics as well. For example, a somewhat underwhelming aspect of CSP4 was the low level of engagement in formal statements about how the gender-based violence (GBV) provision of the ATT is being applied. This was particularly noticeable given the strong attention that related subjects of gender-sensitive arms control and women’s participation commanded at RevCon3. There was however very stimulating discussion at CSP4 about the GBV provision in less formal settings—indicating it is an area of work that will benefit from more deliberate attention at upcoming working group or states parties meetings. Questions asked in those settings illustrated the nature of questions and concerns states have about this aspect of the ATT, but also that there is no shortage of expertise and experience from civil society and governmental agencies that could be of value if more widely disseminated and shared. Building in more time for this subject during meetings of the Working Group on Treaty Implementation (WGETI) or as a thematic focus for the next CSP would go a long way to facilitating information exchange in this area, and could also benefit efforts to harmonize ATT obligations with achieving the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development such as through Sustainable Development Goal 5. It would also be beneficial to not let the discussion about the 2030 Agenda go cold, as there are very practical ways in which ATT implementation can synchronize with that work to eliminate redundancies and maximize impact. 

Read the full summary of days four and five here


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