2012 and Conventional Weapons: Balancing the PoA and the ATT

5 Jan

For those that follow processes related to conventional weapons disarmament, 2012 is proving to be a busy and significant year with its own set of opportunities and challenges. This July, diplomats will come together at the UN headquarters in New York and negotiate treaty language for an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) that seeks to regulate the international trade in conventional weapons. Just four weeks later, many of those same diplomats will gather for a Review Conference to assess implementation of the UN Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat, and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in all Its Aspects (UNPoA).

Each process has its own difficulties– the objective of an ATT is still unclear as to whether it is a treaty with a strong humanitarian perspective aimed at preventing human suffering caused by illicit trade in conventional weapons or, rather, merely a treaty to regulate commerce of arms; the PoA still suffers from weak implementation without benchmarks or enforcement power. Moreover, advocates of a robust ATT fear that small arms and light weapons (SALWs) will not be covered under the scope of the treaty, while many states that have tried to implement the UNPoA framework still lack the coordination and technology necessary to provide the marking, tracing, and record keeping of weapons that is necessary to eliminate illicit trade. As such, the challenges in both processes are vast. However, in a year that provides forums for improvements in both processes, we would be wise to make good use of them by advocating and underscoring linkages and complementary qualities that exist between the two.

The UNPoA is a political (non-legally binding) framework document that covers a wide variety of activities involving SALWs– international transfer, brokering, manufacture, stockpile management, marking, tracing, and record keeping. The UNPoA provides a framework for implementing adequate national laws, regulations, and adminstrative procedures around these activities as they relate to illicit trade. An ATT, as a legally-binding treaty of international law, would cover only internati0nal transfers of conventional weapons such as tanks, military vehicles, naval vessels, missiles, and missile systems and provide for a list of criteria to which signatories would be bound when determining if an arms transfer will be permitted.

Although the two instruments seem disparate, there are clear areas where an ATT could and should support the UNPoA framework. One element severely lacking in the UNPoA is benchmarks. The ATT could help with this lack of accountability by dictating, in a legally-binding manner, how states signatories must comply with international transfer standards. Additionally, an ATT has the ability to clarify some UNPoA ambiguities with regards to transfers (although it is still unclear as to whether this will include SALWs, which may or may not be in the scope of the treaty).  Most importantly, the ATT has the opportunity to build on national commitments to arms control and conventional disarmament measures by providing (hopefully) a clear reporting process on transfers (including denials), a formal monitoring system, and some form of a secretariat to provide administrative support to signatories in their national implementation of the treaty’s provisions.

While the ATT will neither dry up any existing stockpiles nor cover weapons already in circulation, it will address (how strongly and explicitly is still uncertain) diversion of weapons into the hands of terrorists, criminals, and corrupt officials by providing common international trade standards. In concert with the UNPoA that does provide a framework for drying up stockpiles and eliminating weapons in circulation, the ATT has the opportunity to curb human suffering and armed violence caused by new instances of illicit trade in conventional weapons. It seems the two have more in common than has been generally thought by addressing illicit trade through different lenses.

The argument that an ATT will be a drain on resources and cause reporting fatigue for signatories is a weak one at best. It is a generally accepted notion that the lack of common standards for international trade in conventional weapons must be addressed in a more robust and consistent manner than currently exists in the UNPoA that addresses only small arms in a non-binding framework. Therefore, it is clear that both instruments are relevant and it is important to ensure the effectiveness of both in the upcoming year.

–Katherine Prizeman

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