ATT Monitor, Vol. 13, No. 1

Editorial: New opportunities to reduce human suffering
3 February 2020

Allison Pytlak

Download full edition in PDF

New beginnings are exciting. Fresh energy, fresh ideas, and the possibility of fresh solutions to old problems. Along with a new year and a new decade, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) community is starting in on a new cycle of meetings of the Treaty’s working groups in preparation for the sixth conference of states parties (CSP6). Many of these groups will have new facilitation or leadership, some of the groups are looking to develop new outputs, and the CSP6 president has declared “transparency and information exchange” the theme for the year.

Yet in all the enthusiasm of a fresh start, it’s important to remember how and why we’ve arrived at the current moment and not forget commitments of the past. Such continuity and awareness is relevant to the new ATT meeting cycle in several ways: in actioning the decisions taken at CSP5 on gender and gender-based violence (GBV); in determining how states parties will seek to unpack various concepts in relation to treaty implementation; and in resolving different challenges, particularly in reporting.

Not yesterday’s news

Less than six months ago, ATT states parties took a series of decisions meant to improve gender balance in ATT meetings and implementation; to better prevent GBV; and to enhance understanding of the gendered impact of the international arms trade. These decisions were the culmination of many months of focused learning, discussion, and examination of a subject that is too often and too easily overlooked. We, and other stakeholders, felt that the concrete—and generally measurable—decisions included in the final report of CSP5 would ensure that the conversation would not end in August 2019.

Thus it is concerning that the forward-looking plans outlined for the ATT working groups this year do not adequately account for those decisions. Some decisions appear to have been overlooked completely—notably those pertaining to participation and representation—and others are referenced in summaries of past work undertaken, but then are not particularly accounted for in future planning.

For example, the draft workplan of the Working Group on Effective Treaty Implementation (WGETI) includes many areas where the CSP5 decisions on gender or GBV could be taken up because they correspond well with items in the workplan. This includes the proposed future discussion on mitigation measures and the proposed exchanges of national practice, which could include discussion about gender-disaggregated data collection or experiences on training export officials on GBV risk assessment procedures—activities named in the CSP5 final report or in the report of the former WGETI chairperson to CSP5. The outline for a draft voluntary guide includes article 7(4) on preventing GBV, but it’s not clear if this is a component of a broader guide or one that would be specific to GBV risk assessments, as included in the CSP5 decisions.

States and other stakeholders should use this round of meetings to make suggestions for where and how to action the CSP5 decisions within this workplan, and also begin to implement some of them—for example, in their preparation for, and representation to, these meetings. Will delegations be more diverse? Will there have been consultation with relevant gender and human rights experts from within governments in the preparation of statements? Reporting back about any relevant changes or domestic activities enacted by the decisions would also be welcome. Our list of suggestions on how CSP5 outcomes can be taken up in ATT meetings this year is included elsewhere in this edition, and WILPF is ready to continue working with states across all of these.  

Taking up a thematic focus each year as part of a meeting cycle is becoming an unofficial tradition within the ATT community. Doing so has had many benefits but also risks creating a culture in which we move quickly onto the new thing, and the prior year’s focus becomes yesterday’s news, as seems to have been the case with the CSP3 focus on the Sustainable Development Goals. At the same time, the CSP4 focus on diversion has been more meaningfully taken up in the Working Group on Transparency and Reporting (WGTR). For all the same reasons that it was important to have a standalone criterion on GBV included in the ATT, it is now important to not lump these decisions back in with everything else.

Unpacking, not undoing

The word “unpack” is found extensively across the documentation for this week’s meetings. It is especially notable in the workplan for the WGETI’s sub-working group on articles 6 and 7, which seeks to spend significant time in meetings over the next few years on unpacking various legal concepts found within those treaty articles.

Unpacking core concepts can be a good thing to do if it helps to foster knowledge and ensure common understanding and interpretation of concepts or terminologies. Having answers to some of the identified questions—for example, what constitutes “knowledge at the time of an authorisation”—would be valuable in order to have better and shared understandings within the ATT context.

Other concepts suggested for discussion, however, particularly those found in article 6(3), such as genocide or crimes against humanity, are already well-understood and employed within different fields international law. Even “knowledge” is a standard that on its own is very well understood in national and international law as a general matter. There are questions about when and how UN Security Council decisions (referenced in article 6(1)) can be considered to have created true legal obligations—but these are complex, and if ATT states parties want to engage in a discussion about this then they must do so carefully and with an awareness of what legal scholars and other practitioners are saying about it.

The way in which the methodology is presented suggests that some of these concepts and activities could in the course of this unpacking exercise become open for re-interpretation or would not always apply.

Moreover, there is a risk that a lot of time is being given to mapping and exchanging on how states parties understand these terms, and not considering if they are adhering to them. This means this exercise could become a delaying tactic or smokescreen for conversations about accountability and adherence that are not happening.

If this work plan is adopted, then we urge states parties to use the “unpacking” time effectively to zero in on where there is actual misunderstanding or grey areas, or insufficient understanding of how article 6 provisions interact with other treaties and agreements. Delegations must also thus have relevant experts in the room.

Apples and oranges: challenges of ATT reporting

The ATT’s voluntary reporting templates have always been problematic. Their voluntary status means that some states parties employ them while others do not, creating at the outset an uneven landscape from which to draw comparison or analysis. The manner in which questions are formulated give rise to ambiguity and interpretation, which further complicates efforts at analysis. Civil society and transparency advocates regret the inclusion of a tick box that gives the option to allow only other states parties access to the report. Problems stem from the options that states parties have to report on different types of information that are inherently incomparable, such as authorised or actual transfers; or the quantity versus the value of imported and exported weapons. This is a result of ambiguity in the Treaty text. Finally, the fact that after reports are submitted, they are not formally reviewed, analysed, or discussed is suspected to be a demotivating factor. Civil society initiatives such as the Control Arms’ ATT Monitor report and the ATT Baseline Assessment Project managed by the Stimson Center help to fill this gap.

Many of these concerns are not new; in fact, some of them were first highlighted when the voluntary templates were endorsed at CSP2 in 2016. They are being raised anew in the context of an inventory of comments and suggestions about the ATT’s voluntary reporting templates. The inventory will form the basis of some of the discussion at the WGTR meeting this week and has emerged in response to a list of tasks endorsed by states parties for the WGTR at CSP5. It may lay the groundwork for possible adjustments to the templates.

This is one of several measures that states parties are undertaking to counter the downward trend in reporting. Not only are fewer states parties submitting annual reports, but more are requesting to keep those reports private and others are not updating the initial report to reflect relevant policy or legislative changes.

While not the sole focus of WGTR work, adjustments to the templates could be a significant step toward improved report quality and open up ways to include information that was overlooked before. The initial reports could, for example, include space to describe how states are conducting GBV risk assessments. Opening up agreed documents for change can be risky and lead to unexpected requests for change or re-negotiation but doing so can ensure an instrument’s relevance and responsiveness to change over time. It appears unlikely that the templates’ status would change however, but hopefully some updates coupled with the other activities that the WGTR will undertake can help overcome the reporting slump. Public, comprehensive, and timely reporting is essential for meeting the transparency objectives of the ATT.

The original goal: to reduce human suffering

Finally, where we most need continuity and awareness of the past is in remembering the original aim of the Arms Trade Treaty—to reduce human suffering.  For the ever-dwindling group of us who have been a part of this community since before there was a treaty, the landscape of meetings feels very different today.  The humanitarian imperatives and energy that drove the process in its early days now sometimes feel lost in what are ever more technical conversations that appear to help states to “do” arms trading better, but not to asses if the human impact is any less. A lot of emphasis is put onto building the capacities of lesser-resourced states, ostensibly to have the same robust controls as the richer countries do—except that those countries are not having their own practice scrutinised and criticised in the same way. We know that the international arms trade is flourishing, and that the transfers which ought to not be allowed under the ATT happen anyway. The death, displacement, and loss caused by armed violence is a problem that the ATT has failed to address in the ways it was meant to. As we move into this new meeting cycle, states parties need to both remember and honour the Treaty commitments agreed in the past but also bring fresh energy and ideas to its meaningful implementation.

[PDF] ()