ATT Monitor, Vol. 12, No. 8

A fight for the moral and political credibility of the ATT
30 August 2019

Ray Acheson

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I was recently speaking with someone from a city that has been totally destroyed by bombing and shelling, a city from which millions of people have been displaced and remain struggling with lack of food, water, sanitation, shelter, education, health care, safety, and security. He said he is always flabbergasted when Western governments ask him what they can do to help. “Stop sending the weapons!” he always says. Many of the same countries that ask what they can do to help are giving a few hundred thousand dollars in humanitarian aid while they are also selling millions of dollars’ worth of military equipment to those perpetuating the violence and destruction. “It is very simple, really,” he said. “They just need to stop the flow of weapons.”

This comment came to my mind when attending the side event organised by Control Arms on Thursday about arms transfers to Saudi Arabia in the context of its military operation in Yemen. The grave humanitarian crisis that the bombing and shelling in particular has created in Yemen is undeniable and horrific. War crimes and violations of human rights and international humanitarian law are well documented by the United Nations and every reputable humanitarian aid agency and non-governmental organisation. Even after Saudi Arabia has tried to assuage the governments providing it with virtually unlimited bombs and missiles, saying that it has set up an investigative mechanism and a “no strike list,” attacks on civilians and civilian objects continue. At the event, Kristine Beckerle of Mwatana Organization for Human Rights said the Saudi-led coalition keeps hitting sites on its no strike list, including sites with humanitarian markings or where humanitarian agencies have shared their coordinates with the government. “Monitoring this situation is not enough,” she said. “Halting arms sales and military support are the only effective means to push real change.”

It’s in this context that activist groups have launched litigation in several countries against their governments for approving arms licences and exports to Saudi Arabia. In Belgium, Canada, Italy, and the United Kingdom, among others, coalitions of non-governmental organisations and lawyers are challenging unlawful arms transfers in court. Some have also tried taking on arms companies directly, though that continues to prove difficult as most seem to hide behind government approval to protect them from lawsuits.

Some of the actions taken at the national level are having traction. But the fact that this even has to happen points to what Cesar Jaramillo of Project Ploughshares described as one of the fundamental problems with the ATT—that there is no way to hold states parties to account through any official mechanism. Because of this, there is a growing “rhetoric-compliance gap” in ATT implementation, he argued, in which certain states parties assert they are in full compliance with their obligations while they profit from transferring weapons to war zones.

This gap, as we have raised previously in this newsletter, also relates to another gap, one between major exporter states parties that are profiting off the arms trade and developing states parties that face resource constraints in sending delegates to meetings, fulfilling their reporting obligations, and paying their dues. This issue came to a head on Thursday afternoon, when states discussed matters pertaining to financial contributions to the ATT. 

This requires a bit of a wade into the ATT weeds, but the issue it brings to the fore is important, so bear with me: 

The ATT management committee has drafted administrative guidelines for the Treaty’s sponsorship programme. This programme aims to “maximize the scale and diversity of participation of experts from States in ATT meetings to ensure representative and participatory discourse and decision-making during the meetings and, ultimately, contribute to strengthening implementation and universalization of the Treaty.” But, the selection criteria drafted by the management committee specifies in Annex A, paragraph 2, that “if there are insufficient funds available to sponsor all the applicants that are eligible to be selected for sponsorship following the application of the above considerations, priority will be given to applicants from States who are in compliance with their financial obligations under the ATT.”

This takes us back to the Financial Rules for the Conference of States Parties and Secretariat. Rule 8.1(d) says that any state party that has not paid its assessed contributions to the Treaty for two or more years “shall have its voting rights suspended, not be eligible to nominate a representative as an office-holder, nor become a member of any committee or subsidiary body of the CSP.” Many states parties—primarily Western countries, most of which are arms exporters—want to see this rule applied given the challenges of financial liquidity the ATT is facing. The lack of payment in dues is indeed a significant challenge to the ATT’s operation, but, from the perspective of some states parties and certainly from WILPF’s perspective, the much bigger problem is that the arms producing and exporting states parties continue to make arms transfers that violate the ATT’s provisions, and this is not being called to account.

Similar to Wednesday’s discussion over lack of compliance with reporting obligations, the conversation around financial matters really drives home the point that in the ATT there are those who make heaps of money from selling weapons and yet claim they are in full compliance with the Treaty, and those who, mostly due to lack of financial capacity, have not been paying their Treaty dues and thus are in danger of having their rights as states parties stripped from them. Many states from Africa and Latin America took umbrage with this situation on Thursday, calling for deletion of this particular element of the selection criteria for the sponsorship programme and expressing concern with the applicable financial rule. South Africa’s AmbassadorNozipho Mxakato-Diseko argued that non-payment of financial dues is part of a larger issue of inequalities and the ATT should increase support to these states, not reduce it. She asked, “Why do arms manufacturers and exporters want to exclude the ‘weak’ from having the capacity to participate?” 

The two-tiered approach to disarmament and arms control treaties is not unique to ATT; delegates who participate in meetings of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will be familiar with the divide between nuclear-armed states, who spend billions on modernising their arsenals and threaten to destroy the world, and the non-nuclear-armed states who have to implement more and more non-proliferation measures in order to assure the nuclear-armed that they are not trying to acquire nuclear weapons. Of course, with both the ATT and the NPT there are states in the middle—in the ATT, there are developing states or non-exporting states that do pay their dues; in the NPT, there are states that do not possess nuclear weapons but support those that do. And, in the context of the ATT, it would also be interesting to look at which states have not paid their dues and compare it to how much money they are spending on buying weapons.

But the bottom line is, it seems remarkable how these significant divisions of “haves” and “have nots” in both treaties have developed. In the NPT context, this has had serious implications for the viability of the Treaty, which is facing a growing crisis in credibility. ATT states parties have the chance now, in these early years of the Treaty’s life, to prevent this from happening. We hope the opportunity is seized by all in order to ensure the ATT’s financial viability, but also its moral and political credibility. We need states parties to pay their dues and submit their reports, but we also need them to stop the sale and transfer of arms that are resulting in the devastation of cities, the environment, and human lives.

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