ATT Monitor, Vol. 13, No. 3

Editorial: Transparency (still) matters
14 August 2020

Allison Pytlak 

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The irony of the thematic focus of the Sixth Conference of States Parties (CSP6) to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) has not gone unnoticed. For a “meeting” premised on transparency and information exchange, there has been a disturbing lack of both in ways that impact not only the Treaty’s various processes but could also have implications for substantive work going forward.

First were the issues with information sharing around the decision-making process agreed for this CSP. President-designate Ambassador Villegas of Argentina put forward the proposal to conduct the conference in written format.[i] Conference participants of any stripe are invited to submit written statements that would normally be delivered orally at an in-person meeting. These will be published online by the ATT Secretariat.[ii] While the choice of a written format meeting is not optimal, it has been floated elsewhere as an option to progress work amidst the travel restrictions and precautions necessary as a result of the COVID-19 health pandemic.

The process agreed for CSP6 had provision for decision-making, which would have seen all draft decisions disseminated to only ATT states parties. Yet per the ATT Rules of Procedure[iii] all conference participants—including observer states, international organisations, and civil society groups—can receive formal conferences documents (which draft decisions qualify as) and would, in an in-person format, also be able to react to those and hear reactions of states parties in an open setting. Withholding the content of the draft decisions, even if done unintentionally, raised enough alarm bells to see that decision reversed. The draft decisions are now being posted on the ATT Secretariat’s website.

Then, there is a substantive concern with respect to CSP6 draft decision 13 regarding the establishment of a Diversion Information Exchange Forum—and, for those following the technical ins-and-outs, relevant references found in draft decision 12.[iv] This proposal has its origins in the “three-tier approach” to information exchange on diversion that was developed by the ATT Working Group on Transparency and Reporting (WGTR) and endorsed by states parties at CSP4, in which one “tier” consists of closed meetings amongst states parties to facilitate information exchange on suspected or actual cases of arms diversion.

The convening of the closed meetings—two have taken place—was agreed to openly and is not being contested. But the establishment of a new entity as an output of those deliberations is. The terms of reference for the proposed new Forum and other documentation are completely unavailable to non-governmental stakeholders or observer states and the context in which it was envisioned is unknown; it’s also quite likely that not all states parties have been able to thoroughly review the terms of reference.

Adopting this draft decision via silence procedure would set a dangerous precedent for decision-making in the ATT context.  It would lead to the formal establishment of an entirely closed process by silence procedure without any opportunity for discussion or input from observers, civil society and industry. It undermines or may even contradict the ATT Rules of Procedure, which afford certain participation rights to all registered observers in order to enable open and transparent proceedings. This is why WILPF has called on states parties to not adopt this decision. Postponing the establishment of this Forum until it can be more thoroughly discussed—and relevant documentation made available to all—would be a responsible move from states parties.

The drawbacks of silence procedures

Other aspects of the CSP6 decision-making process have raised questions too. The timeframe of the silence period comes to an end after the first day of the conference, with the intention of announcing decisions and issuing a final report on the conference’s final day. This limits the impact of the written statements and doesn’t allow for any formal interaction. Moreover, there are differences in how the silence procedure—and specifically what will happen if it’s broken—has been described to states parties, versus how it’s been described to other stakeholders and publicly.

The use of silence procedure gives de facto veto power to any one country, and the framing around “breaking silence” can be discouraging to states parties who have objections but fear that in raising them, the state party would somehow “bring down” or “ruin” CSP6. In other formats, whether in-person or virtual, there is space for dialogue and open negotiation prior to coming to a decision. We also know that not all draft decisions have been adopted in past years; whether the issue was open versus closed meetings, the sponsorship programme, or reporting templates, it would not be a first if certain draft decisions were put-off now.

The public version of the format for CSP6 and its decision making describes that silence procedure will be conducted as per Rule 41(3) of the ATT Rules of Procedure, which stipulates, “If the silence procedure has been broken, the President will immediately inform States Parties and the matter shall be deferred for consideration by the Conference at its following ordinary session.”

However, in a separate communication issued to ATT states parties only, the president explained that states parties will only be informed of a break in silence procedure if the objection is “of a nature that cannot be addressed” and also outlines the possibility of consultation and reformulation of the proposal, and initiating a new silence procedure, especially for items that cannot be deferred to a later meeting or advanced intercessionally.

There might be good reasons for building in the possibility of dialogue and consultation—both of which are activities that in principle should be encouraged—but because the process is already such an opaque one and there are now two sets of understandings about how decisions are being reached, this approach cultivates mistrust and could create credibility risks for whatever decisions are ultimately adopted. Unless there is some public accounting for who raised objections, what they were, and how they were addressed, CSP6 on “transparency and information-sharing” may well go down in the record books for the exact opposite characteristics.

Keeping inclusivity as we move online

Of course, this is not an ordinary year. Everyone is trying their best under extraordinary circumstances while grappling with the stress, reduced capacity, and general uncertainty that has come to define 2020. 

Yet because of the uncertainty and dynamic change all around us, this is actually the moment when it is most important to stay vigilant and guard against the erosion of openness and multi-stakeholdership. It is times like this when opponents of transparency can take advantage of diminished and distracted capacity to introduce decisions and practices that will have impacts on the future.

If we are too late to shine a light on how decisions will be made at CSP6, then states parties, signatories, and observers should look to other models for future meetings and consultations that have adopted more inclusive approaches.

For example, the Human Rights Council (HRC) has in 2020 only used silence procedure selectively because of concerns about the de facto veto power that this procedure confers. When it was used to adopt[v] the HRC’s Presidential Statement on COVID-19[vi], it followed on from an open negotiation on the draft statement, in which the presidency compiled inputs, comments, and recommendations from all stakeholders into public documents and conducted an open online session to present and discuss textual changes, and take on board further input. Following this, a letter was issued to respond to questions that had been raised around the “legality” of a silence procedure, explaining that it was “proposed under truly exceptional and challenging circumstances due to a global pandemic.”

The approach of the current chair of the Group of Governmental Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons to take decisions about if, how, and when to convene the meetings scheduled for 2020 is also a possible model: online discussions, or “fireside chats” as they were called, were convened as a public space for states and non-governmental stakeholders to react to five possible working method options and get a sense of common preferences. The chair also participated in a virtual discussion with civil society representatives to clarify the process further and hear our views and priorities. The outcome has ultimately been to postpone the GGE meetings scheduled for June and August, which is unfortunate, but at least the process of arriving at that decision was done in an open and consultative way.

Redefining security

This is also the moment to redefine security and establish new priorities for how to achieve it.

The current crisis triggered by the health pandemic has exposed the fault lines of global economic and social systems. As RCW’s Director has highlighted, the pandemic has demonstrated that it is not guns and battle tanks that ensure global peace and security in a crisis such as this, but essential workers in the health and food sector, in public transportation, and in the provision of other essential services.[vii] 

Yet in some countries, including those that are party to the Arms Trade Treaty, arms production and sales continue apace. The year preceding the pandemic saw the largest annual increase in global military expenditure in a decade.[viii] Weapon manufacturing has been deemed an “essential service” by some states, able to carry on despite the closure of other industries, shortfalls in the production of essential medical equipment, and unsafe working conditions.[ix]

Following more than five years of war and the resulting food insecurity and destruction of vital infrastructure, civilians in Yemen are now dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Multiple ATT states parties either continued or resumed[x] their arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and its coalition that is attacking Yemen. Airstrikes on Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition have increased over the last few months, often hitting civilian targets—including a COVID-19 quarantine centre.[xi] There are also ATT signatories providing arms to parties within Libya, in violation of a UN arms embargo and their in-principle commitment to the ATT,[xii] and in a year in which Libya has recorded the highest number of attacks on health facilities of any country in the world.[xiii]

This means that in the midst of a global health crisis, many countries are still engulfed in armed conflict. This has flooded already struggling health infrastructure with wounded civilians and put even more strain on populations suffering from violence and instability. 

Eliminating the spread of COVID-19 requires that health facilities have adequate water, sanitation, and healthcare waste management, among other items. A 2019 report by the World Helath Organization and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) found that “[a]n estimated 896 million people use health care facilities with no water service and 1.5 billion use facilities with no sanitation service.”[xiv]

The resources needed to address that shortfall and balance other economic impacts of the pandemic such as caused by loss of employment often feel overwhelming and staggeringly high. That’s because they are.

But what is also staggeringly high is the cost of buying arms, and the profits reaped from selling them. As research from the Global Campaign on Military Spending has shown, one F-35 joint strike fighter aircraft could pay for 3,244 intensive care unit beds, or a Leopard 2E battle tank costs the same as more than 400 ventilators.[xv]

Imagine the lives that could be saved when “security” is redefined in ways that prioritise human health and well-being ahead of tools of violence and death.

Stay tuned

We are publishing this edition of the ATT Monitor in order to lift up the views and expertise of diverse civil society actors on topics pertinent to the international arms trade and the Arms Trade Treaty at a time when in-person meetings and interaction are not possible. As made evident in this editorial and throughout this edition, there is a widely felt concern from many civil society actors about shrinking space and reduced transparency. We hope this edition of our ATT Monitor goes some way to fill growing gaps while also calling attention to those very concerns. 

Most contributors to this edition, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, have also submitted formal statements to the conference upon which we encourage states and other stakeholders to read and reflect. We’ll be reading them, too—and intend to publish a second edition of the ATT Monitor shortly after the CSP6, with analysis of the statements and decisions adopted.



[i] President of the Sixth Conference of States Parties, Working paper: Transparency And Exchange Of Information: Its Role In The Prevention Of Diversion,  28 July 2020, https://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament-fora/att/csp6/documents/csp6-wp-president.pdf.

[ii] Statements are being posted by the ATT Secretariat at https://thearmstradetreaty.org/statements-csp6?templateId=1321691 and Reaching Critical Will, WILPF’s disarmament programme, at https://reachingcriticalwill.org/disarmament-fora/att/csp6/statements.

[iii] ATT Rules of Procedure, https://www.thearmstradetreaty.org/hyper-images/file/ATT_Rules_of_Procedure1/ATT_Rules_of_Procedure.pdf.

[iv] CSP6 Decision 13: Establishment Of The Diversion Information Exchange Forum, ATT/CSP6.DIEF/2020/CHAIR/629/Decision.DIEFToRs, https://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament-fora/att/csp6/documents/csp6-draft-decision-diversion-exchange-platform.pdf.

[v] “Human Rights Council adopts President’s statement on Human Rights implications of COVID-19,” 29 May 2020, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/Pages/NewsDetail.aspx?NewsID=25914&LangID=E.

[vi] Presidential statement: Human rights implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, A/HRC/43/L.42, 27 May 2020, https://undocs.org/A/HRC/43/L.42.

[vii] Ray Acheson, “COVID-19: A Sustainable Ceasefire Means No More “Business as Usual,” WILPF, 17 April 2020, https://www.wilpf.org/covid-19-a-sustainable-ceasefire-means-no-more-business-as-usual/.

[viii] “Global military expenditure sees largest annual increase in a decade—says SIPRI—reaching $1917 billion in 2019,” SIPRI, 27 April 2020, https://www.sipri.org/media/press-release/2020/global-military-expenditure-sees-largest-annual-increase-decade-says-sipri-reaching-1917-billion.

[ix] See, for example: Decreto del presidente del consiglio dei ministry, 22 March 2020, https://www.gazzettaufficiale.it/eli/id/2020/03/22/20A01807/sg and “Il Virus Non Ferma Le Armi,” 23 March 2020, https://estremeconseguenze.it/2020/03/23/fabbriche-armi-coronavirus-essenziali/.

[x] See, for example https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/britain-arms-sell-saudi-arabia-military-exports-a9605636.html and https://nationalpost.com/news/saudi-arabian-canadian-arms-deal-improved-more-transparent-federal-government.

[xi] “Yemen,” Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, 15 July 2020, https://www.globalr2p.org/countries/yemen/.

[xii] David Wainer  and Samer Al-Atrush, “UAE Ran Covert Arms Flights to Aid Libya’s Haftar, UN Finds,” 15 May 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-05-15/u-a-e-ran-covert-arms-flights-to-aid-libya-s-haftar-un-finds; and “Operation Irini: Turkey slams EU mission to contain arms to Libya,” Al-Jazeera, 19 June 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/06/operation-irini-turkey-slams-eu-mission-arms-libya-200619160820054.html.

[xiii] “Libya COVID-19 cases double in 14 days as violence increases, exacerbating existing threats facing vulnerable populations,” International Rescue Committee, 12 June 2020, https://reliefweb.int/report/libya/libya-covid-19-cases-double-14-days-violence-increases-exacerbating-existing-threats.

[xiv] WASH in global health facilities: Global 2019 Report, World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/311620/9789241515504-eng.pdf?ua=1.

[xv] See http://demilitarize.org/resources/gdams-healthcare-not-warfare-infographic/.

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