ATT Monitor, Vol. 12, No. 7

The meaning of implementation
29 August 2019

Allison Pytlak

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“The ATT should be a serious tool to prevent human suffering but so far it is not living up to this task. We urge everyone participating here to reflect on your potential role in current and future conflicts—do you want to perpetuate the violence, or try to stop it by doing the work to improve this treaty’s implementation?”

The above is drawn from WILPF’s statement to the Fifth Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty during its thematic session on treaty implementation. It is a question that speaks to the crux of an emerging implementation dichotomy, in which much discussion, funding, and practical work toward implementation are directed toward boosting the ability of some states parties to become Treaty-compliant and simultaneously obscuring the non-compliance of other states parties.

This dichotomy is reminiscent of dynamics we see in other areas of disarmament and arms control. While not as extreme, consider the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, where efforts to enforce the disarmament obligations of “responsible” nuclear-armed states have been brushed aside for a narrative of non-proliferation that emphasises the capacities and commitments of the alleged “irresponsible” non-nuclear-armed states. In ATT meetings we hear the word “responsible” all the time in relation to the behaviour of major exporters, yet as WILPF’s and other civil society statements pointed out today, these supposedly responsible transfers are somehow still causing the same pain and suffering that the ATT was designed to prevent.

Of course, as many delegations emphasised on Wednesday, implementation is an ongoing process with different starting points and priorities for all. Concern about uneven implementation priorities is not to undermine the importance or necessity of the work that has occurred, whether to assist states that are in the early stages of developing a national control system, fostering interagency cooperation, or harmonising legislation. As well, it cannot be overlooked that the calls to focus discussion further on diversion are coming from states that are most impacted by the international arms trade, or that support for the Working Group of Effective Treaty Implementation to establish a new sub-working group on transit and transshipment has come from countries that are transit hubs and grappling with unique challenges, like Costa Rica and Singapore, or within the Pacific. These states are open about their needs and challenges and see benefit in ensuring work plans which correspond to that. What is absent is the same awareness or honesty from countries that take some dubious and possibly unlawful decisions in their export decisions, which is also an equal part of Treaty implementation.

Implementation and non-compliance also featured heavily during the afternoon’s session on transparency and reporting. The number of countries submitting annual reports is dropping, and concerns have also been raised over the growth in reports being kept private (viewable only to other states parties) and that only two countries have updated their initial reports despite having made changes significant enough that would warrant doing so. Most delegates expressed concern about all, or some, of these challenges, and the efforts made by the working group to understand and overcome these issues are appreciated by most states. The afternoon session heard many stern warnings that reinforced the message that reporting is not an option. Indeed it is not an option, and the decrease in reporting rates and quality so early on in the life of a Treaty is hugely problematic, as is the uneven quality and detail in the information submitted. Reports must be "detailed, accurate, consistent, comparable and that correspond to all aspects of the Treaty,” reminded the International Committee of the Red Cross.

It’s this last aspect about “all aspects” of the ATT that bears repeating and stern reminders, in the context of implementation generally. There is otherwise the risk that as implementation of ATT commitments across the board are being discussed and interpreted unevenly, it is fosters a one-sided narrative that ultimately undermines the ATT’s credibility, undermines universality, and gives fodder for its critics.

It is not too late to turn things around. The delegation of New Zealand noted that the ATT is at a “crossroads” and acknowledged that there are different opinions about whether certain transfers meet the Treaty’s obligations or not—sometimes balanced with the objective of bringing new states, especially major exporters, on board. Its recommendation to stay alert to this challenge while not losing the good work done so far on implementation is a start; so too was the urging from the Netherlands for states to incorporate case studies of real practice so as to understand how the ATT and its assessment process is being implemented. Many delegations expressed support for the two stakeholder sessions on diversion being held at CSP5, which are meant to be based on examples and real experiences. There has also been appreciation for presentations from states parties in working group sessions that demonstrate national experiences, either in setting up control systems or navigating ratification processes. This all indicates appetite for more precise discussions in general, although in the afternoon session on Wednesday, a few states raised caution about confidentiality concerns in such conversations.  

WILPF’s statement to the treaty implementation debate included suggestions for ways to change the narrative and improve accountability. In addition, dialogue and interaction between the representatives at ATT diplomatic meetings, and those tasked with its implementation, particularly in the area of export control, must be encouraged. This gap became particularly evident at a training organised by Control Arms in May, which invited licensing officers from central and eastern European countries to a training on the ATT’s gender-based violence provision. Control Arms did a report back on this training at CSP5 side event on Wednesday and this disconnect was among the lessons they highlighted as a barrier for implementation of article 7(4) but which probably has wider applicability.

At the end of the day, and no matter where you sit, compliance (aka implementation) ultimately rests on political will. To go back to our statement, “doing the work to improve implementation” will mean not only continuing the important capacity building and information sharing already underway, but will also require a far more stringent application of Articles 6 and 7, and that other states parties start to push the narrative in another direction by challenging these other forms of non-compliance.


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