ATT Monitor, Vol. 14, No. 4

Editorial: The fuel that perpetuates conflict
8 September 2021

Allison Pytlak

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As the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) community convened for its Seventh Conference of States Parties (CSP7) last week, many eyes were also following the painful “final chapter” of the United States’ (US) withdrawal from Afghanistan. The sheer scale of violence and tragedy which has borne out over the last few weeks has been appalling to watch and dehumanising for those living through it.

Multiple dimensions of the crisis bear relevance for the international arms control and disarmament community, not least the capture and acquisition of US arms, ammunition, and military equipment by the Taliban and possibly other armed groups. There are lessons and learnings here which relate to some of the main themes of the CSP7—diversion, illicit trafficking, and stockpile security.

Yet there are also lessons and learnings that connect with some of the fundamental drivers of the movement for an ATT when it started in the late 1990s. Cold War arms racing and the arming of proxies by major powers had ballooned the international trade in conventional arms to unprecedented heights, leading to massive build-ups of arms with scant consideration of the human rights or humanitarian impact of their transfer or use. Many of these weapons came to play a bloody role in diverse post-Cold War conflicts and violence, some funnelled there by unscrupulous brokers, while other arms and ammunition stockpiles were scooped up and re-used by armed groups, militaries, or new governments amid transition. The proliferation and misuse of these arms propelled the campaign for a legally binding instrument on the international arms trade. 

“The world is over-armed and peace is under-funded,” observed former UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon on the eve of the ATT’s negotiation in 2012.

Those words feel particularly apt when considering what has just occurred in Afghanistan. While exact figures appear hard to come by, it’s evident the that the value of weapons and equipment provided to the Afghan military over the last almost two decades by the United States and other governments is well into the tens of billions of dollars. The trend of over-armament has continued. For instance, the advance edition of the 2021 report of the UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen recalls its previous report which notes the role of, and names, several third states—many of them ATT states parties—in perpetuating the Yemen conflict through arms transfers. The 2021 report reminds that: “Arms sales are fuel that perpetuate the conflict.”

“Countries react too often to crises by supplying more arms into areas already awash with them,” noted Control Arms in a statement to CSP7, citing Libya, West Africa, and the recent establishment of a European “Peace Facility” that will facilitate the transfer of more military equipment into fragile settings as recent examples.

Herein lies a learning point for the international arms control community: over-arming does not lead to peace; time and again it only serves to further destabilise and to cause more suffering, sometimes for generations. “States should reassess whether the answer to an overabundance of weapons,” continued the same Control Arms statement, “especially in a fragile context, is more weapons.”

Prioritising substance

In many ways, however, CSP7 discussions were broadly substantive and put human rights and humanitarian concerns at the fore, in a way not felt during recent meetings, which have grown increasingly technical.

This is owing in large part to the efforts of Sierra Leone as the CSP7 president. In this capacity, Ambassador Lansana Gberie spoke openly throughout the meeting cycle of his country’s civil war and the lingering impact of conventional arms, in particular small arms and light weapons (SALW). This was a large motivation behind the priority theme Sierra Leone selected for CSP7—“Strengthening efforts to eradicate the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons and ensure efficient stockpile management”—and is outlined further in a draft working paper from the president.

Substantive concerns over the human cost of the arms trade came through during a high-level opening panel, which was followed by a session focusing on the CSP7 priority theme, in which most speakers highlighted with facts and concrete examples of the scourge of armed violence and conflict.

“We know from the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), International Crisis Group, and other humanitarian organisations that about 2 billion people suffer from fragility, conflicts, or violence,” stated Dr. David J. Francis, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sierra Leone during the high-level opening panel of CSP7. Sheikh Omar Faye, Minister of Defence of The Gambia, noted in his high-level statement that illicit transfers of arms and diversion have become significant in many countries in Africa and elsewhere, and communities suffer the “scourge of armed violence partly as a result of inadequate regulation of arms exports.” Similar points were made about Latin America, and especially Mexico, by the Mexican Secretary of Exterior Relations, H.E. Sr. Marcelo Ebrard Casaubon.  

In the same panel, Gilles Carbonnier, Vice-President of the ICRC, described the “acute suffering” witnessed by ICRC staff working in Mali, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen, as brought about by arms. In South Sudan, he noted that three ICRC surgical teams have cared for an estimated 9,000 patients wounded by weapons; around one third of those patients are children or women.

Multiple side events held throughout CSP7 illustrated in vivid detail the daily impact of arms transfers in Libya, the Tigray region, the Sahel, Gaza, Yemen, and Syria; these examples were also referenced in statements delivered (mainly by civil society groups) at different points during the CSP7. Some events or statements were also quite explicit in naming states engaged in arms transfers to those countries or regions, including France, Canada, Italy, Turkey, US, and the United Kingdom (UK).

The high-level opening panel was followed by a thematic discussion on SALW, diversion, and stockpile management, summarised elsewhere in this edition. Taken together, these two sessions set a substantive opening tone for CSP7, compounded by the in-person participation of many delegations—a first since the start of the pandemic.

Shifting political headwinds?

In the context of the priority theme, five recommendations to states and other stakeholders for advancing practical action in relation to SALW control and stockpile management were adopted at CSP7. These were widely welcomed by most delegations participating in the session, although a cautionary note was struck by the UK in its statement, which was otherwise quite positive: “As the paper sets out, a strong export licensing system, with a comprehensive risk assessment prior to the transfer of small arms and light weapons, is critical. We must ensure however that we do not create unnecessary barriers and unrealistic requirements for States Parties.”

The UK may have had the United States in mind, given the country’s “withdrawal” of its signature from the ATT in 2019. In a statement delivered during the universalisation session, the US explained the country’s desire to underscore the “continuing commitment of the United States to the responsible international trade in conventional arms.” The US explained that it is in the process of revising its Conventional Arms Transfer policy, which will help to determine the “proper relationship of the United States to the Arms Trade Treaty.”

The US’ currently ambiguous relationship with the ATT was noticed by China, when it called on the US to “right this wrong” and return to the ATT as soon as possible. China also appeared to touch on the US in its general statement to the CSP7: “Some country, in particular, by abusing arms trade as a political tool, flagrantly interferes in the internal affairs of other countries, which undermines international and regional peace and stability. Some country, out of its own interest, constantly breaks its commitments through relaxing its arms export control policies and even revoking its signature to the ATT, which undermines multilateral efforts in regulating conventional arms trade by the international community.”

While not an entirely inaccurate—and perhaps even refreshingly direct— description, it is also disingenuous considering the source. Just recently for instance, the role of Chinese weapons and military equipment in the Myanmar crisis was not overlooked during the April CSP7 preparatory meetings. Yet, China has been a very active participant in ATT meetings since acceding to the Treaty in 2020. Whether or not the US “re-joins” the ATT in the near future, dynamics between the two countries will be an interesting development to keep an eye on.

There are also interesting dynamics emerging in relation to transparency and reporting. As described in greater detail elsewhere in this edition, the ongoing decline in ATT reporting rates, and increased number of reports being made private, is an urgent matter of concern. According to the ATT Secretariat, in 2015, four per cent of states parties made their reports private whereas in 2020, 29 per cent had done so. 

CSP7 saw the adoption of proposed revisions to the two voluntary ATT report templates. Work on these revisions has been ongoing for almost two meeting cycles, with decisions to adopt them delayed because of COVID-19, and largely undertaken with the intention of resolving inconsistencies, errors, and omissions created by the structure of the current reporting templates. The revisions process was done in an open and inclusive way and enjoyed broader support from across the ATT community—but at CSP7 there were a few murmurings of unease. In the lead up to CSP7, for example, it was reported that South Africa might move to block adoption of the revisions, in line with concerns it had raised earlier this year about the inclusion of sensitive information and reporting fatigue.

Ultimately South Africa did not block the amendments, but referenced its earlier concerns, which it felt had been brushed aside. It flagged its concern that reporting requirements could be become deterrent to treaty universalisation. France, Australia, and China all supported the amendments and reiterated the importance of transparency and reporting, but variously made points about the voluntary nature of the templates, sovereign rights of states, and national security or trade interests.

In the quest for universalisation, it’s vitally important that the provisions—and expectations—of the ATT not be diluted in order to accommodate the whims and “national security” needs of the world’s most powerful states, also its largest weapons producers. This will lead to double standards that could undermine the ATT as an instrument and international law more broadly, and risks creating politicisation and division between states parties.

Taking stock

Germany will preside over CSP8. In brief remarks delivered at the conclusion of CSP7, Germany’s ambassador outlined the three issues it will promote next year: universalisation, post-shipment controls, and “taking stock” of the first six years of the Treaty. Germany has recently commissioned a series of research papers from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) looking at what has been achieved in key areas like universalisation, implementation, assistance, and processes and forums—and what work remains to be done. A side event presenting these papers took place on 3 September, and is reported on separately in this edition of the Monitor.

It feels like the right moment for taking stock and looking back—in order to move forward. WILPF has encouraged that this approach would be beneficial in the context of assessing progress made against outcomes adopted at CSPs in relation to priority areas of focus, noting that sometimes in the move to a new thematic focus each year, previous conference outcomes may be overlooked or forgotten. WILPF and others have also suggested, through statements and written submissions, that it’s time for states parties to create a space or mechanism by which to meaningfully explore transfers of concern in the context of compliance with articles 6 and 7. 

This is because taking stock of achievements must go beyond what has been accomplished in conference rooms or on paper alone. During the opening panel, the ICRC Vice-President noted that all too often there is a tension between commitment and practice, with respect to ATT implementation. This was compounded by a point made by the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu in her video statement to CSP7, “Despite UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire over one year ago, arms continue to flow—conflict continues to rage and rights of world’s most vulnerable people, many of them women, continue to be eroded.”

As WILPF argued in the context of its reporting on the recent Seventh Biennial Meeting of States on the UN Programme of Action on SALW in July 2021, “Yet in the search for measurability, we must look beyond the UN conference rooms and look for impact. Impact on lives, impact on livelihoods. The UNPoA was driven by a strong humanitarian imperative to reduce human suffering, poverty, armed conflict, violence, and crime.”

So too was the ATT, as described at the outset of this editorial. To evaluate success, we must look beyond conference reports to also consider practice, and impact. In its CSP7 thematic statement, Namibia pledged its support for the ATT’s implementation while also recalling that it continues to seek “to promote the establishment and maintenance of international peace and security with the least diversion for armaments of the world's human and economic resources”. In the context of stocktaking, this reference to the Article 26 of the UN Charter is an important reminder to question current policies and habits of routine over-armament and militarism—and invest instead in peace and human security.

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