Archive | June, 2012

The Arms Trade Treaty: Anticipating ‘Redlines’

20 Jun

As the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) negotiations are set to begin in just over a week, member states and civil society alike are examining and speculating on possible configurations of a consensus treaty text. These configurations inevitably beg the question—is a weak ATT better than no treaty at all? Would a weak treaty do more harm than the harm caused by opting out of the process altogether? Where are the ‘redlines’ that would warrant any state to consider abandoning negotiations in July? Are there alternatives for negotiating an ATT within the UN system, or perhaps outside of it?

In a new policy brief, I highlight contentious issue areas and apparent ‘redlines’ that exist among the prominent and most outspoken stakeholders with regards to each issue– SALWs, ammunition, human rights, victims’ assistance, brokering, among others. While states will obviously make decisions on ‘staying or leaving’ based on their own national interests, I also offer  recommendations focused on whether or not these issues should, in fact, be a negotiating ‘redline’ as well as on how best to treat such issues during the negotiations.

The full policy brief is available here.

—Katherine Prizeman

The ATT won’t be a panacea, but let’s be fair

4 Jun

The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) will not be a panacea for all the world’s weapons-related human rights abuses, but shouldn’t we give the UN and ATT advocates a bit more credit than Mr. Bromund does in his 30 May 2012 editorial in The Commentator, “When the UN Arms Trade Treaty fails, what next?” Mr. Bromund explains why the upcoming ATT negotiations will not solve all the problems related to the flow of weapons to autocratic regimes. He also argues for why the upcoming negotiations are a bad idea in the first place. We can agree that the ATT will not be a cure-all for the complex problems of the diverted arms trade, but have strong disagreements with the second notion.

Mr. Bromund admits that even if the negotiations fail to produce a Treaty in July,  such a Treaty might well come to fruition perhaps at a later stage within the UN or perhaps outside the UN system altogether. At the same time, he sees ATT advocacy as a push to make the UN “do things it was not designed to do, things that would destroy the system…” This is a categorical and perhaps ideologically-driven claim that does not fairly assess the potential of the UN system for establishing new norms and standards (though not always coherent practices) on matters of international security, including on arms transfers and specifically on the need to end diversion of legally traded weapons. Diverted weapons have a direct and demonstrable impact on criminality, terrorism, insurgency, and corruption. Which of these does Mr. Bromund approve of in practice? Obviously none. One can make the case that at ATT, especially in its earlier iterations, will not have sufficient ‘teeth’ to deal with all aspects of diversion, but Mr. Bromund offers no alternate path and our government, the US, is one of several states willfully undermining the ability of the ATT to deal with this critical challenge to international peace and security – which is, after all, a primary role and responsibility of the UN.

Mr. Bromund is right when he states that many ATT ‘insiders’ are increasingly concerned that the initial Treaty will be far from “bullet proof.”  Mr. Bromund concedes that the ATT will at least create the principles to guide the creation of national systems for controlling arms imports and exports in order to raise overall, international standards for the transfer of conventional weapons. Our sense is that this list of “principles” that states should bear in mind prior to a transfer would be the weakest possible outcome for negotiations. Such principles “considered” by States without any accountability or implementation mechanism could arguably be used as cover for future transfers of questionable character. Signatories could maintain that they are acting in accordance with their international obligations as parties to the ATT, have evaluated (born in mind) a given transfer according to the adopted list of principles, and have nonetheless decided to continue the dubious transfer. Therefore, it is important to advocate for an ATT that does have some “teeth,” at least enough “bite” to highlight the diversion potential of certain transfers and alert sellers publicly of the risk.

As Mr. Bromund seems to be writing from a perspective that essentially supports the current US negotiating position, it is important to note that the US standards on weapons transfers are already high; thus the point of a Treaty would be to get other national standards up to a high level insofar as this is fiscally and technologically feasible. The US would not have to change much in the way of its practices under an ATT, though there is now much chatter, largely uninformed and largely from the NRA and other pressure groups, that an ATT will require a large and controversial program of civilian disarmament.  Nevertheless, the US and other larger powers would certainly be required to acknowledge more than they now do a responsibility to do more to get smaller (and many recipient) nations up to a new international code.

That being said, non-governmental organizations that have worked vigorously for an ATT for more than a decade, and that are fully dedicated to a “binding, bulletproof” Treaty that will advance human rights, should not be altogether dismissed for being unrealistic or naïve as Mr. Bromund implies. Vocal ATT proponents are in no way the “deadliest enemies” of the UN system by advocating for a Treaty with strong oversight and pushing states, very publicly, to be held accountable during the negotiation process. NGOs holding all states accountable for where they transfer weapons do not in any way “destroy the [UN] system they claim to be defending and promoting.” The UN system, even with a “veto”option [it seems Mr. Bromund is referring to the P-5 veto in the Security Council put in place because of a demand made by Stalin as a condition for Soviet membership], is entirely capable of implementing a new treaty that seeks to prevent the flow of weapons to societies (whether directly or through diversion) with a high risk of fueling human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law. The ‘veto’ to which Mr. Bromund seems to be referring should not be confused with the consensus rule that was established for the ATT, which in this case was insisted on by the US, but which gives any government the right to jettison the process without explanation. Clearly, there are sufficient ways for governments to ‘protect’ their interests in this process should they choose to exercise them.

Nevertheless, in taking such a strong stance, we believe, if the process should be severely undermined or even fail altogether, both of which are certainly possible, then Mr. Bromund is correct:  If we (NGOs) are full partners in this process, NGOs should be subject to the same scrutiny as states in any assessment of why the process did not succeed in producing a viable Treaty.  “Looking into the mirror” is something that none of us does enough.

We, along with many of our NGO colleagues, believe that the ideal outcome of an ATT is a robust instrument of international standards to regulate the global business of the transfer of arms that is fully implementable to include a comprehensive scope, primary attention on diversion, provisions and structure to facilitate international cooperation and assistance that will ultimately stop transfers of arms and ammunition that fuel conflict, poverty, and serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. However, we are not unmindful of the possibility that the first iteration of the Treaty will most likely be lacking in many of the characteristics that NGOs rightfully push for—strong humanitarian language, victims’ assistance when rights are violated via illicit transfers, a requirement of denial notifications. However, institutionalizing a strong review process with the possibility for improving on the first iteration of the ATT would be a generally positive outcome. Similar to the evolutionary process of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the argument would be that the ATT will most likely require sequential refinement under the auspices of a regular cycle of review conferences in order to achieve even close to its full potential, and that such refinements in this case are possible and preferable to abandoning the process entirely.

On a side note, Mr. Bromund’s characterization of review conferences as “running battles between countries that are easily swayed by left-wing NGOs” is hardly our experience. We don’t know how many review conferences he has attended (we would be pleased to make his acquaintance as we attend them all), but there are a few points to be made in response to his characterization, one of which is that specific expectations for the ATT are by no means shared by all NGOs, which are generally not considered to be ‘left leaning’ by any groups claiming to be so. Second, the NRA and other gun lobbies – not a lot of “left leaners” in that crowd – have participation in Preparatory Committee meetings, though their interventions have been mostly focused on US policy and the concern that the “UN” is somehow a major threat to gun ownership in this country.  Third, the “battles” referred to, such as they exist, are an inherent and sometimes useful aspect of diplomatic processes. It is better to air grievances in initial stages than to have them ‘sprung’ on states at later stages.

Mr. Bromund’s point concerning implementation is correct insofar as the ATT must make a practical difference in preventing and combating the diversion of weapons to abusive regimes if it is to be counted as a success. However, Mr. Bromund categorically and carelessly dismisses the utility of an ATT saying that it will not make any practical difference where the world’s dictatorial regimes are concerned because the Treaty will state clearly and explicitly the right of all governments to buy, sell, and transfer weapons. However, this claim of the sovereign right of states to import and export weapons does not preclude an ATT that can help stem the flow of weapons to abusive governments and eliminate a diverted market dominated by criminals, terrorists and other rogue interests. States retain the sovereign right to sell weapons under an ATT, and arguments by the NRA and others that the UN is seeking (or even has the capacity) to undermine the US second amendment are careless and ideologically driven. But the point here is that no state is required to make sales of weapons and, certainly, states cannot reasonably argue that there is no national interest in keeping weapons out of the hands of criminals, human rights abusers, terrorists and corrupt government officials. In instances where a state willingly permits a weapons transfer to a government that is known to divert weapons to non-state actors, a strong ATT would authorize the means to apply political and diplomatic pressure on both producing and recipient governments to reconsider the sale.

Human rights abuses will not be curbed solely by the adoption of an ATT (even if it were to miraculously receive full and enthusiastic endorsement by all 193 member states of the UN). But we have an opportunity in July to negotiate a strong Treaty to stem the flow of weapons and ammunition to corrupt or rights-abusing governments. We understand full well that the UN system is not always the most functional playing field, but the issue of diverted weapons is one where norms and practice can find a common and positive framework. This is a path that our own national interest requires us to follow.


–Katherine Prizeman & Robert Zuber