ATT Monitor, Vol. 14, No. 2

Editorial: Preventing diversion of attention
5 May 2021

Allison Pytlak

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As states and civil society met virtually last week for the first time in this Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) meeting cycle, the UN Office Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported renewed clashes between the Myanmar security forces and regional armed groups in several places in Kachin state. These included the use of airstrikes by the Myanmar military and mortar shelling by both sides. The result was the displacement of nearly 5,000 people and damage to their homes, compounding already difficult conditions caused by earlier violence, poverty, digital repression, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Around the same time last week that OCHA filed this report, an ATT conference side event was taking place on the subject of how irresponsible arms flows—including of parts, components, equipment, and dual-use goods—are fuelling the crisis in Myanmar.[1] The access to and production of weapons and military equipment in Myanmar is complex, but it does demonstrate a situation where the ATT can make a difference. As part of his opening remarks to the side event, Ambassador Lim of the Republic of Korea observed that, “As seen over the years, ATT states parties and stakeholders share different views and interpretation of the ATT criteria. At the end of day, what matters is that that the ATT makes an impact on the groups that need it most.” 

This is a point that WILPF and other stakeholders have been emphasising repeatedly since even before the Treaty was adopted. The cities and countries in the grip of crisis may be different now than they were then—although tragically, a few have slid even further from peace—but the message to reduce human suffering is a constant. As Palestine highlighted in its statement, our understanding 

The limits and possibilities of Zoom diplomacy 

Last week’s round of intersessional ATT meetings was this treaty community’s first foray into a fully virtual conference. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, all multilateral processes have been trying out a range of methods to advance their work, with varying levels of success.[2] The ATT CSP6 meeting cycle occurred completely via written format and decisions were taken by silence procedure. Agreements were not always clearly communicated or explained to all stakeholders, which generated confusion both on substance and on process. As we noted in an earlier edition of this Monitor, in his role as CSP7 president, Ambassador Gberie of Sierra Leone has done well in taking 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. 

It was evident that significant work went into preparing for the virtual meetings. Clear agendas and advance documentation were provided; some of which had been organised neatly so as to ensure that topics would not overlap one another within a single meeting, but that each would be given sufficient time and space to be addressed. The ATT Secretariat website has become a well-organised hub for these and other relevant documents, including the many expert and kick-off presentations delivered throughout the week, which were immediately available online. All meetings were recorded and also made available instantly in the five languages used by the Treaty (Russian is the only UN language not yet in use, as based on the needs of current states parties). Participants were also encouraged to submit in writing any statements delivered verbally for posting on the ATT Secretariat afterwards. These measures are important for transparency and information-sharing, especially in a process that ultimately leads to the adoption of formal decisions. In addition, such measures can help lesser-resourced delegations or those based in further time zones to catch-up and stay abreast of developments. Virtual meetings hold the possibility in general of enabling broader and more diverse participation than would be possible when visas, flights, and hotel costs are a factor—although, as we saw a few times last week, the digital connectivity of all cannot be taken for granted. For some in civil society, safe internet access is also a consideration.

Yet, despite there being around 200 or more people logged in each day, verbal participation in most meetings was noticeably low. The meeting on the CSP7 thematic focus of stockpile management on the first day had by far the most statements. Only around a dozen state delegations[3] and two or three civil society groups delivered statements regularly throughout the remainder of meetings. Expert thematic presentations were met with very few questions, and there was not much interactivity between and among participants, which is admittedly always somewhat awkward to manage well in a virtual format and with an eye to time restrictions. However, considering the amount of substantive items that are under consideration and the significant preparations that the presidency, co-chairs, and the ATT Secretariat have put in to planning the meetings, the low level of active participation felt surprising, and even somewhat disappointing. For some topics, such as on sharing about challenges in meeting reporting requirements, it was also a missed opportunity for meaningful exchange and progress.

This could be a reflection of where we are in the pandemic and the toll that the last year has taken on resources and capacity. It could also be as simple as the time of day when the meetings took place not being convenient for all parts of the globe or connectivity problems. As well, some states may be sending their inputs in via email or through the information exchange platform. If they are doing so, it will be important that contributions received either as meeting statements or as written proposals be made available online so that it’s possible to assess those inputs against future proposals.

Reduced or lower than usual participation does give credence to points that WILPF and others have made about this being an opportune moment in time to evaluate the existing and proposed meeting modalities, work plans, discussions, and related resource allocations, and questioning the “business as usual” approach. This applies both to how working methods support the Treaty’s real-world impact, but also if they enable fair and equitable participation of all. As Palestine noted in its statement last week, states should reconsider their priorities in light of the global pandemic—it explained that the understanding of security as dependent on “astronomical expenditure on weapons and militarisation is fundamentally flawed” because true security depends instead on education and health services, for example. 

The pandemic may feel like it is ebbing in some parts of the world, but in others it is raging and won’t be “over” for anyone until it is over for everyone. The disarmament calendar is also chock full of postponed meetings on other weapons issues around the time of CSP7, posing further constraints. It may be that the temperature needs to be taken again before finalising the plans for CSP7, to protect against the contributions of lesser-resourced states and actors being squeezed out.

Diverting attention 

Another point that WILPF has raised in reference to ATT meeting cycles is about continuity and ensuring that commitments undertaken during states parties’ conferences on a specific thematic focus do not get lost in the move to a new thematic focus the following year. This was echoed by Argentina and Control Arms in their statements to the CSP7 preparatory committee.

One thematic focus that has definitely not gotten lost in the mix, however, is diversion, which was the focus of CSP4 in 2018. There is now a sub-working group on the topic (constituted under the WGETI); there was an informal meeting to discuss “concrete cases of detected or suspected diversion that States Parties and Signatories are dealing or have dealt with” during CSP5; it was somewhat the focus of CSP6 (which was, officially, “transparency and information exchange: it’s role in the prevention of diversion”); and has led to the establishment of a new body, the Diversion Information Exchange Forum. Not surprisingly there has been a correspondingly large amount of publications, resources, and side events on the subject in these years.

Diversion, and illicit trade, is also very much bound up in this year’s thematic focus on stockpile management. This focus was well-received by states during the corresponding meeting last week, as is outlined elsewhere in this edition of the Monitor.

It should not be surprising then that during that meeting and elsewhere throughout the week, there were many references to the Treaty’s objective to “prevent and eradicate the illicit trade in conventional arms and to prevent their diversion”. But it is starting to sound as if the ATT were an instrument focused solely on illicit transfers and trafficking or designed solely to prevent diversion.

Arms diversion and illicit transfer are undoubtedly a massive part of the reason why conventional arms continue to reach the conflicts, crises, and actors that they do, but it’s also important that the ATT community not allow its attention to be diverted from the Treaty’s focus on regulating the legal transfers of arms and preventing the negative consequences outlined in articles 6 and 7. Further, this should not just be in the context of arms exporting countries taking care to prevent diversion through their own control system, but also in being rigorous in assessing for the other risks set out by the Treaty.

Private sector responsibility was also noted more than once in statements last week, especially in the context of transit and trans-shipment, and on diversion. There is a lot to be said—and done—in relation to corporate responsibility in the arms industry. Earlier this year, the UN Working Group on Business in Human Rights convened a discussion about possible areas of action and research in relation to weapons companies, and different organisations including WILPF have long highlighted the applicability of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to the arms industry. This is an important conversation that is not yet really being had in the way it ought to, including within human rights frameworks, but calling for private sector accountability should not lead to an abdication of state responsibility and due diligence.

Accountability in a changing landscape?

One new development last week was the first-ever participation of China in an ATT meeting as a state party, following its accession in 2020. China was an active participant in meetings. Its statements tended to highlight its “principled arms transfers” and how its domestic policies and law align with Treaty requirements.

Meanwhile, a voice that had been heard often in past meetings has become quieter as of late. The United States signed the ATT in 2013 and while it never ratified, US representatives have subsequently been very active participants in working group meetings and at CSPs, offering views on documents and decisions in its capacity as a signatory. Ever since former US President Trump tried to “un-sign” the ATT in 2019, US government participation has been muted, however. Current US President Biden has not yet reversed that decision in any public way and given that US representatives did not really contribute last week beyond responding to a technical question, it would appear that they do not yet have instructions to re-engage. 

The involvement of two of the world’s largest arms exporters may generate some new political dynamics among the ATT membership, including in relation to accountability and compliance. China did not hesitate to call out the United States for remaining outside of the ATT in one of its statements last week. In other disarmament and arms control fora, the two countries throw barbs at one another regularly, but this is unusually candid behaviour for an ATT meeting. Some of China’s other inputs also drew attention to the fact that that some of the resources and tools that have been developed via ATT working groups to support implementation refer to arms control instruments and frameworks that not all exporting states parties (i.e. China) are party to, highlighting the Euro-centric composition of the ATT’s exporting membership. There are of course broader geo-political and security relationships that bind Europe and the United States in ways that exclude China, just as China has ties to some other, mainly importing, states parties, and including in the provision of arms and military equipment. 

China’s role in relation to Myanmar was not overlooked during the side event referenced earlier in this editorial; just as the role of some European and North American countries have not gone overlooked in other side events and reports launched throughout the years on arms supplies to Yemen, South Sudan, Libya, and elsewhere. Going forward however, it would be difficult for Western states parties to throw shade at China for activities in relation to Myanmar, or elsewhere, without finally having to own up to some of their own, equally shady, arms transfers. Some of the activities undertaken by the Working Group on Transparency and Reporting (WGTR) such as updating the draft report templates and allocating time during meetings for states to share about the challenges they face in meeting reporting deadlines or why they chose to keep their reports private, are helpful in this regard. Regrettably, few states took the floor during those opportunities last week and it doesn’t appear any opportunities will arise in the context of the Working Group on Effective Treaty Implementation (WGETI).

Civil society members that are part of the Control Arms Coalition called again last week for a reality-based conversation about assessing the Treaty’s impact, a move WILPF supports:

Since it first convened in 2015, the ATT Conference of States Parties has made great strides in developing its reporting system and improving its transparency.  We must now turn our focus to improving transparency in arms transfer decisions…. Only by rigorously assessing arms transfers decisions against the Treaty’s criteria and by providing scrutiny to possible Treaty violations by others can we ensure that implementation efforts are effective.

As underscored at the start of this editorial, the message to reduce human suffering has been a constant since before the ATT was adopted. It is more than just a message, however—it is a moral imperative that underpins the legal commitments undertaken by ATT states parties. 

[1] A summary of this event can be found on p. 29.

[2] In September 2020, WILPF published Locked out during lockdown: an analysis of the UN system during COVID-19, in which its programmes on disarmament, human rights, and Women, Peace and Security came together to analyse working methods of relevant UN fora during the first six months of the pandemic.

[3] These include Argentina, Belgium, Canada, China, European Union, France, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, Panama, Republic of Korea, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. Other states spoke only once, or not at all.

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