ATT Monitor, Vol. 14, No. 1

Editorial: What will it take
25 April 2021

Allison Pytlak

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In April 1915, more than 1,100 women gathered in The Hague as the first World War raged all around them. They were united by a shared vision about the root causes of violence and conflict and a desire to take decisive and collective action for peace. The meeting ended with the founding of what would become the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).

The first resolution WILPF adopted called for an end to the “madness and horror of war”. It also warned that the “profits accruing from the great armament factories” would be a “powerful hindrance to the abolition of war.”

The warning has, regrettably, been borne out over time. More than a century later, the horror of war still causes immense human suffering the world over, fuelled by the unrelenting and ever-profitable business of making and selling arms. From Libya to Yemen, Tigray to Myanmar, and Syria to Ukraine, lives, livelihoods, limbs, homes, vital infrastructure, and in some instances even entire generations of families are lost or forever impacted. The most recent report on the global arms trade from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) notes that international arms transfers remain close to the highest level since the end of the cold war. As transfers from some countries level off, other exporters are rising to take their place. In 2019, global military expenditure saw its largest annual increase in a decade, reaching $1917 billion.

That business has continued apace throughout the worst global public health crisis in a century has felt especially despicable. In some countries, arms production facilities have been deemed “essential services” and remained open, putting employees at risk of contracting COVID-19 and preventing their possible conversion to producing needed protective gear or ventilators. Emboldened by the chaos and unpredictability of the pandemic, some authorities have securitised their approaches to public health, including through enhanced surveillance and public control measures that sometimes involve military equipment, or what are considered to be dual-use goods in ways that impact human rights. Resources have gone into military spending, sometimes at the expense of healthcare and human security.

Against this backdrop, states parties to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) and other stakeholders are meeting this month for the first round of interactive meetings to be held in over one year. There has been an impressive amount of documentation and paperwork developed in preparation for this round of intersessional talks, and WILPF can only reiterate its longstanding call for the many working papers, unpacking exercises, reports, results, and templates to not distract the ATT community from addressing more politically challenging issues—in particular, ongoing arms transfers that undermine the most essential aspects of the Treaty.

New ways of working; new topics of focus

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended all multilateral processes, and the ATT meeting cycle has been no exception. The last time state representatives met in-person was February 2020. The subsequent round of intersessional work took place via written submissions, as did the Sixth Conference of States Parties (CSP6) in August. Diverse states and civil society organisations, including WILPF, expressed concern that certain aspects of the CSP6 meeting cycle were not held transparently, and this generated confusion about both process and substance. With no end to the pandemic in sight, it is foreseeable that non-traditional working methods will be the norm for some time to come—making transparent and consultative ways of working more important than ever.

Positively, the CSP7 president, Ambassador Gberie of Sierra Leone, has taken a consultative approach to planning this meeting cycle by outlining the options for meeting modalities and formats and asking states and civil society to offer input along the way, in an effort to find a method that works for all, or at least for most. The result has been that all of the ATT’s three working groups and sub-working groups will meet virtually for a week of intersessional meetings and one preparatory committee meeting for the CSP7 scheduled to take place in August-September 2021 (format TBD).

Also on the agenda for the April meetings is a thematic discussion on stockpile management. Stockpile management has not figured prominently in past ATT-related discussions or meetings. Some might even say that it fits more within the remit of the UN Programme of Action (UNPoA) to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) in All Its Aspects, which contains several action points meant to improve the security and management of weapons stockpiles. It has been heard informally that some states are hesitant to approach this topic for this reason and would like to keep the topics separate. Yet Ambassador Gberie has expressed that the focus on this topic stems from Sierra Leone’s own experience with armed conflict and violence:

Far too often in the recent past, weapons legally acquired by States end up being used by forces that they were not meant for. Illicit transfers and diversions from official stockpiles have become major issues in conventional arms regulation in many countries in Africa and elsewhere. This is why this presidency, in collaboration with its bureau, will pay particular attention to the international trade in, and movement of, small arms and light weapons.

A substantive paper prepared by the presidency outlines some of the touchpoints between this topic when addressed in the ATT context and when addressed by other international instruments. It identifies four possible steps for states parties to consider adopting at the CSP7 that could potentially build out in practical ways the “synergy” that many states refer to when they are speaking about the relationship between the UNPoA and the ATT, among other frameworks.

The paper also notes that improved stockpile management is important to preventing diversion, which is an active area of work and discussion within the ATT community, including through the WGETI sub-working group on article 11; the newly (and not altogether transparently) constituted Diversion Information Exchange Forum, aka the DIEF; and the thematic focus of CSP4 in 2018 and, to some extent, CSP6.

The practice of adopting an annual thematic focus for the CSPs has been a way for the ATT community to take a closer look at what are often cross-cutting topics and build knowledge and capacity on them. At the same time, not all thematic topics have enjoyed sustained interest overtime and, in some cases, relevant outputs and commitments have been overlooked in the rush to move onto a new topic.

The outcomes from CSP5 on gender and gender-based violence are one example. The CSP5’s final report contained several commitments that states parties agreed to undertake in this area. WILPF had made a range of suggestions for how to practically advance those commitments. Some have been taken forward, such as in the context of the WGETI’s sub-working group on articles 6 and 7 and its unpacking exercise (now expanded to include all of article 7). Others, such those on GBV risk assessment processes and data collection, are possibly being implemented in national contexts, but there’s not really been a space or place to report back on that during international meetings because of how meetings are structured and the shifting focus to a new topic. Other commitments and recommendations from CSP5—including some that might be considered low-hanging fruit, such as encouraging improved gender diversity in ATT meetings and activities—feel like they’ve been forgotten entirely.

Going forward, WILPF encourages states parties and others in the ATT community to take stock and review implementation of outputs stemming from past CSPs. One way to do this could be to build time into CSP agendas for a formal review of past commitments and outputs and do better to track their progress into the future—as well as share experiences and challenges of doing so with other states and civil society.

Old ways of working; topics that are never the focus

There will likely be continuity in other areas.

Changes that were proposed for the two ATT reporting templates are again on the table for states to consider. Overtime, reporting rates have declined and a greater number of reports are being kept private each year. Other issues have also arisen with respect to the quantity and quality of data provided and if that enables a strong enough basis to conduct necessary analysis and review, whether done by other states parties or civil society initiatives. Many of the proposed changes could bring improvement in this area, and the co-chairs of the Working Group on Transparency and Reporting (WGTR) are also opening up space in the meeting agenda for exchange on how report data is presently being used (and how it could be used) and what the challenges that some states parties are experiencing, including why some reports are not being made public, among other topics.

One of the more controversial decisions adopted at CSP6 was the establishment of the Diversion Information Exchange Forum (DIEF). Civil society and a few states expressed concern about it in CSP6 statements, with Control Arms noting that the method in which it was established “undermines the ATT’s purpose of transparency and its historic inclusion of civil society.” The chairperson of the DIEF is scheduled to give a briefing during the WGTR session, and a link to its Terms of Reference (TOR) has been made available (on the meeting schedule) on the ATT Secretariat’s website. The inability of non-states parties (including ATT signatories) to access the TOR and other documentation was a significant part of the concern around the DIEF’s establishment.

Incidentally, “transparency and exchange of information” in the context of diversion was the thematic focus of the CSP6 meeting cycle and the subject of a paper prepared by the CSP6 president, Ambassador Villegas of Argentina. The outputs proposed in that paper were not adopted at CSP6 and it’s been re-submitted, with tracked changes, for consideration during this meeting cycle in the context of the Working Group on Treaty Universalisation (WGETU) meeting—which seems like an unusual home for this topic.

What feels unlikely to be a topic of focus in this round of meetings (once again) is arms transfers being made by ATT states parties right now that are fuelling armed violence and calling into question their compliance with core ATT provisions, including article 6 and article 7. Civil society has been vocal about continued transfers to Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from the United Kingdom, France, and Spain, and the United States (an ATT signatory), in the context of the use of those weapons and items in Yemen. The final report of the UN Panel on Libyais damning for its revelation of how arms and military equipment are reaching Libya despite the arms embargo. It further illustrates how offshore production, a lack of corporate human rights accountability, lax transit practices, and other legal loopholes demand a more rigorous application of all ATT articles.

Conversely, there are instances where export permits and transfers have stopped for reasons that align with ATT requirements, such as Canada’s recent denial of export permits to Turkey over diversion concerns; and Italy permanently ceasing all sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE earlier this, following similar (albeit sometimes) temporary moves by just a few other European countries. These set a positive example of Treaty implementation as well as set a benchmark for future arms transfer decisions—as well as highlights the inconsistencies across states parties regarding transfers to similar recipients and locations, as well as contradiction within single countries on how equally they may be applying their risk assessments. It would benefit Treaty implementation overall to have a channel and space to exchange on these incongruities.

Against the backdrop of most major exporter states continuing to profit off the arms trade in a global health crisis and states parties’ limited time and resources, the elaboration of ever-more detailed work plans, guidance documents, and other activities, raise a number of questions about the real-world impact of the ATT.

As noted in our coverage of CSP6, it’s only ever been civil society, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and a small handful of states that speak to this concern, and it’s mainly being raised in side events and reports. Noteworthy in that regard is the side event taking place in this round of talks on irresponsible arms flows to Myanmar, organised by Amnesty International and Control Arms.

In describing the horror of war, WILPF’s founders also protested war’s “reckless sacrifice of human life and the destruction of so much that humanity has laboured through centuries to build up.” What will it take for states parties and others to not be reckless with the responsibilities entrusted to them—and rather to be bold, by holding one another to account and by robustly implementing their obligations under international law?

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