ATT Monitor, Vol. 12, No. 3

Editorial: Room for improvement in the room where it happens
10 April 2019 

Allison Pytlak

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At the outset of Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) meetings held last week, the hope was expressed that the upcoming Fifth Conference of States Parties (CSP5) could be a turning point for states parties to move from discussing matters of institution building, to ones of substance. 

This has been a call from civil society for a few years now, bred out of frustration that ATT meetings are more preoccupied with administrative matters than the problems caused by the arms trade that the Treaty sets out to address—and particularly, flagrant displays of non-compliance that are eroding the Treaty’s impact and external credibility. Some states have defended this approach to business by pointing out that it is a “new” instrument, not “mature” enough to withstand harder or politically sensitive discussions about compliance. It is true that to be effective, treaties require significant infrastructure, resources, and institution-building. It is also true that to be effective, treaties need to political will and to demonstrate that they have teeth—by changing practice and policy, and through unbiased application of their provisions.

To an extent, a turn to substance is occurring. The system of working groups and sub-working groups is allowing for concrete and at times, detailed and sometimes even interactive exchanges on a range of issues related to Treaty universalisation and implementation. For instance, the sub-working group on Article 5 is moving toward adopting a Basic Guide that would assist states parties with establishing of national control systems­.  The process of creating that guide and reviewing its contents has required interaction and sharing about existing practices and real challenges. The sub-working group on Article 11 may organise a meeting to discuss actual or suspected instances of diversion.  The Working Group on Treaty Universalisation session included presentations from newer states parties in which they described obstacles that they faced in ratifying or starting to implement the ATT that prompted reactions from other states that are encountering similar challenges.  The meeting of the Working Group on Transparency and Reporting enabled frank sharing about the practical issues that states are encountering with reporting—ranging from discrepancies between the suggested template and their own record-keeping practices or in trying to collect the necessary data across departments and ministries.

Thematic focus areas, now becoming an annual tradition in the ATT meeting cycle, are a good mechanism for generating substantive discussion on either synergistic topics like the 2030 Agenda in 2017 and was then mainstreamed into working group discussions the following year; or actual Treaty provisions like diversion in 2018 and currently, gender and gender-based violence (GBV). There has been a noticeable progression in the depth and breadth of what is being said in the working groups and preparatory meetings about gender and GBV and a move away from somewhat abstract support for an abstract concept of “gender” to concrete suggestions for incorporating a gender perspective in ATT implementation.

During the meetings held last week, states and observers had a lot to say on this subject, in response to the working paper prepared by the current ATT president that sets out possible actions for states parties to endorse at the CSP5. Some urged better coherence with the Women, Peace and Security Agenda or relevant human rights instruments. Others encouraged applying a gender perspective to Treaty articles beyond Article 7.4, which is the provision on GBV. Support exists for developing further guidance on implementing a gender-based violence risk assessment alongside acknowledgement of the value of existing work in this area. There was discussion about understanding what gender-based violence is in the ATT context, where and how to find data to make an assessment, and support for gender-disaggregated data collection. Two side events and a new working paper from the International Committee of the Red Cross generated additional dialogue, details of which can be found further in this edition.

It’s evident, therefore, that there is an appetite for dialogue and talking about substantive matters alongside administrative or procedural ones, and that good things are happening. Yet, there is an elephant in the room that cannot be ignored and all the welcome packages, thematic panels, and guidance documents in the world won’t obscure forever the fact that the ATT is not stopping the arms transfers that it is supposed to. On-going transfers to Saudi Arabia have tragically become the go-to example and would have been an ideal test case for the Treaty’s strength. There are other examples too: in advance of the fourth states parties conference in 2018, one organisation highlighted transfers of concern to the Philippines, Nicaragua, Cameroon, and Israel.

The act of assisting states parties who lack control systems or struggle with diversion because of porous borders is important—but it is not only those states parties who need to comply with what they’ve agreed to. At the time of its negotiation, ATT detractors warned of the potential for discriminatory application and that the Treaty would benefit major arms exporters, not limit them. Arms Trade Treaty supporters need to do better to prove critics wrong and not allow genuinely important implementation assistance in certain areas to become a smokescreen for inaction in other areas.

The room where it happens” is perhaps the most popular song in the mega-hit musical Hamilton, performed during a scene in which a famous political compromise occurs behind closed doors, the precise details of which are forever a mystery.  It was said in passing last week by the CSP5 president that the “biggest room in the world is the room for improvement”. ATT states parties must get serious about saving lives—both in the rooms where they meet behind closed doors and continue brokering deals that cause human suffering, and in those where they meet to discuss Treaty implementation collectively.


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