The Arms Trade Treaty at the First Committee General Debate: Views on Where to Go Next

16 Oct

One of the most anticipated items on the First Committee agenda this session is the future of the arms trade treaty (ATT) negotiations. As the July 2012 Diplomatic Conference ended without adoption of a consensus treaty, many delegations have come to this session of the First Committee hoping for a mandate to continue negotiations in 2013. 62 delegations, nearly every delegation that took the floor, referenced the ATT during this week’s general debate either expressing support for an additional Diplomatic Conference, underscoring the importance of adopting universal conventional arms trade regulations and lamenting the inconclusiveness of the July Conference, or reiterating the necessity of transparency and non-discrimination in the negotiation of the future ATT. Despite the varying views on how to move the process forward, the process must indeed move forward by capitalizing on the momentum of the summer’s negotiations. Nevertheless, building on the progress made requires improvement and strengthening of the draft treaty text and not merely maintenance of the status quo or, worse, a weakening of the text. As Ambassador Higgie of New Zealand noted, robust support for continuing the ATT process is crucial to the human and humanitarian dimensions of security and, as noted by the delegate of the Republic of Korea, states must engage in “effective deliberation in the First Committee for constructive alternatives.”

The general debate underscored the nuances in state positions regarding how the July negotiations were viewed as well as specific text suggestions that delegations seek to address in future deliberations. Furthermore, the interventions also highlighted states’ positions on how and under what circumstances negotiations should move forward.

Interventions by delegations this week illustrated how states viewed the July Conference and, ultimately, how such views will affect decisions on moving forward. Some delegations noted July as a “failure,” including the Chairman of the Committee, Ambassador Percaya of Indonesia, who called the “recent failure” of the ATT disappointing and the representative of Cameroon who noted that “the failure of the ATT makes things harder” in the context of international security concerns. The Ambassador of Costa Rica called the lack of consensus “a blow to peace and human rights.” Other delegations chose to focus more explicitly on the progress made in July and appealed to delegations to “continue to push ahead,” as suggested by the representative of Malaysia. Ambassador Adamson of the UK asserted, “I want to make absolutely clear that the Conference did not end in failure. To say it did ignores the huge progress that has been made towards our ultimate aim…” The general and widespread consensus, nonetheless, was a sense of deep disappointment over the inability to reach consensus over the summer, although somewhat tempered by hope for future negotiations.

Despite varying views on whether or not July was ultimately a “failure,” the vast majority of states expressed support for continuing the process through continued deliberations to adopt a treaty in “the near future.” Some chose to underscore specific items that remain contentious, including issues of scope, criteria and parameters, as well as inclusion of specific principles. For example, the representatives of CARICOM, Colombia, and Peru all called for inclusion of munitions in the scope of a future treaty. The representative of Colombia also appealed to states for a comprehensive list of activities to be covered, including brokering, financing, export, and import. The representative of South Africa warned against becoming “side-tracked” by extraneous issues such as production and possession. Discussion also arose related to the principles and criteria to be included in the ATT. The representatives of the Africa Group and the Non-Aligned Movement underscored that there must be “no undue restriction in the way of the sovereign right of states for self-defence,” while the ASEAN states highlighted that any ATT must ensure the rights of self-defense and territorial integrity. The Arab Group representative laid forth specific guidelines related to parameters of a future ATT noting, “Any criteria developed by the treaty to regulate arms exports must also be based on clear legal instruments…” Therefore, it is clear that such reiteration of state positions illustrates that many issues remained unresolved from July and will require further debate before adoption of a treaty.

In terms of the pathway forward, such a decision is expected to be taken in the coming weeks. The “co-authors” group of the original 2007 General Assembly Resolution on the ATT, composed of Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Kenya, Japan, and the UK, announced their intention to submit a resolution at this session of the First Committee seeking a mandate for an additional Negotiating Conference in early 2013. Ambassador Adamson noted that the Resolution sets the timing for “a short, final, consensus-based conference to finalize the work of the treaty” stating that as some states asked for “more time” to consider the President’s draft text, that time should be given. The EU, France, Guatemala, Switzerland, Spain, Turkey, Portugal, and the US all supported a final conference in 2013 with negotiations based on the President’s draft text. However, other delegations chose to refer more loosely to the future ATT process. The representative of India said no treaty “should be rushed through” by an imposed timeline and the representative of Cuba noted that his delegations would “pursue discussions” on the ATT in a transparent manner.

While the issue of continuing discussion of the ATT was generally uncontested, the rules of procedure remain debatable. The representatives of Mexico and Norway rightly underscored the deadlock caused by the consensus rule in July. As the Ambassador of Norway noted, “We have seen the consensus format watering down or paralyzing important disarmament processes time and again.” Likewise, the Mexican delegation urged that delegations do not allow a small number of states to impede the entire process because of their own “political or economic considerations.” Holding hostage an entire process due to the demands of a few states is simply unacceptable and interpreting consensus as de facto veto power will seriously undermine, if not prevent, adoption of a robust ATT that seeks to have a concrete humanitarian impact. As the First Committee continues to debate the future of the ATT process, the requirement of consensus must continue to be debated such that a new conference does not yield the same unsatisfying and disappointing result that came in July.

For more information on the First Committee, see Reaching Critical Will.

–Katherine Prizeman

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