ATT Monitor, Vol. 13, No. 2

Editorial: A whole lot of unpacking going on
11 February 2020

Allison Pytlak and Katrin Geyer

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The first round of this year’s Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) meeting cycle got off to what could be described as a very practical start, in which there was much technical conversation, methodical work planning, and in particular, a lot of “unpacking” activities—which seems to be a popular approach across the board.

The three ATT working groups—on treaty implementation, transparency and reporting, and universalisation—have adopted ever-more detailed workplans and tasks over the last year or two. This results in meetings that are increasingly specialised, mainly on the details of arms transfer policy and practice—but there is also always much discussion and close scrutiny of agenda items that would be considered more administrative, or financial, such as in relation to sponsorship and financial challenges, as the summaries in this edition show.

In particular, discussions in the three sub-working groups of the Working Group on Effective Treaty Implementation (WGETI) on article 9 (transit and trans-shipment) and article 11 (diversion), as well as in the Working Group on Transparency and Reporting (WGTR), demonstrate how these groups and their tasks are becoming more structured and compartmentalised in order to zero in on specific obstacles reported by states parties.

Not everyone welcomed this degree of technical sharing and exchange, however. The United Kingdom and France raised concerns about the proposed unpacking of key legal concepts in the WGETI’s sub-working group on articles 6 and 7 in which they cautioned against setting “prescriptive” definitions and reminded that Treaty implementation is a national prerogative. The presumed rationale for unpacking concepts is to arrive at common understandings of how to apply the precise, legal, terminology of those two articles—which are arguably the heart of the ATT—and (hopefully) create a better standard by which to measure arms transfers decisions of states parties. In doing so, it would become more difficult for a state to argue later that it did not have, for instance, adequate “knowledge” of the implications of a proposed transfer at the time when it was authorised, or that it understands “war crimes” in a way that would make arms transfers that appear obviously linked to such crimes permissible, for example. Put differently, a legal grey area can be strategic to maintain.

Costa Rica, Mauritania, Control Arms, and WILPF also expressed concern about the unpacking exercise in this sub-working group but for different reasons. We are concerned about the risks of opening or reinterpreting concepts that have been thoroughly reviewed and explained by lawyers and legal scholars. We do not want to enable the kind of strategic or deliberate ambiguity that would exploit loopholes and leave space for questionable arms transfers.

Meanwhile, technical and detailed information sharing is also becoming an issue in the context of ATT reporting—or, more accurately, it is the lack of such information that has become the problem. Despite the ATT being such a young treaty, there is already a noted decline in reporting rates and too much variety among them to enable any solid analysis. Moreover, Control Arms noted that while more countries may have submitted annual reports in 2018 than in previous years, “…we know less about the global arms trade than we did before, due to the increasing number of reports being kept confidential.” Only four annual reports were kept confidential in 2017, whereas 11 states parties requested confidentiality when submitting an annual report in 2018.

The preview edition of this volume of the ATT Monitor  stressed the importance of continuity and awareness about the decisions from previous Conferences of States Parties alongside longer-running discussions and dynamics that influence meeting agendas and positions.

When it came to decisions adopted by states parties less than six months ago at the Fifth Conference of States Parties (CSP5) on gender and gender-based violence, it almost felt as if that work hadn’t happened. As we report on elsewhere in this edition, a few of the CSP5-mandated activities will be taken up by the WGETI sub-working group on articles 6 and 7—but not thoroughly or on their own merit. Other of the actions seem doomed to be overlooked entirely. The ATT Secretariat delivered a short presentation on what it will do to improve gender balance in meetings. This is the right step to take but the plans seem vague as of yet and would benefit from more detail.  Throughout the week, very few countries highlighted this subject, even broadly, as a priority. Most of the suggestions and reminders on this topic came from civil society. No country took the floor to report on any measures implemented since CSP5 that would advance those commitments. Only WILPF responded to the ATT’s Secretariat’s presentation.

This is a downside of the annual themes. Having one opens up opportunities for dialogue and learning on a subject than would not otherwise be possible, but what happens after that when everyone moves on to something new? Anchoring the decisions on gender and GBV in the final conference report created obligations, many of which are measurable and in line with commitments that most states already have such as through instruments like the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women; the Women, Peace and Security agenda; or Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5. Incidentally, the SDGs were once also a CSP thematic focus that inspired several mapping activities that outlined the parallels between ATT obligations and various of the Goals and indicators—but then dropped off. The CSP6 theme (transparency and information exchange to address and prevent diversion) does pick up on work started in 2018 for CSP4 with an intention of developing “permanent tools” for future use.

Regardless of topic, there are clearly many tools, templates, and guidelines now being developed by the ATT community, many of which are based on national practice or understandings. Such sharing is good for transparency, and for capacity- and confidence-building. To be even more effective, states should ensure that these materials reach appropriate colleagues at home, in order to close the policy gaps between Geneva and national capitals; and to engage those people or other relevant experts in the development of these tools and unpacking of concepts.

More than anything, we must always evaluate if said resources and discussions play a role in facilitating the impact that the ATT was meant to—and make sure to not use the need to create them as an excuse to avoid or delay addressing the more politically challenging issue of non-compliance by some states parties through on-going problematic arms transfers. These states already have control systems in place and probably won’t be waiting on any guidance notes issued by meetings of states parties; they cannot justify non-compliance as a capacity issue. When will time be given to unpacking that, in these meetings?

It does feel sometimes as if the humanitarian imperatives that were the original motivation for the ATT have been lost sight of, in the technical work of creating tools and resources.  “We need to redouble our efforts to keep the human being at the centre of our attention,” Costa Rica stated last week, in one of very few statements that referenced the human-centric notion of security that is central to this Treaty.

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