Signature Moment: A Final Thought on the ATT

2 Jun

On Monday June 3, the Arms Trade Treaty (67/234B) will be officially open for signature at UN Headquarters by all Member States.

On that day, there will be a special event to mark the opening as well as a large celebratory reception that evening. The amount of diplomatic and civil society energy that went into this treaty was considerable and certainly is worth at least a bit of cheer.

Like many others, GAPW devoted considerable amounts of program time to ATT-related matters.  Primarily through the ATT Monitor which we developed and distributed with Reaching Critical Will, we gave what we believed to be thoughtful and attentive analysis to diplomats about the ways in which treaty negotiations could function more smoothly and identified (red) ‘base lines’ that separated a nominally successful treaty from one that, in our view at least, was as likely to do more harm than good.

Those baselines in our view were barely exceeded. The treat that was adopted on April 2 was considerably better than the version which had (thankfully) dodged consensus in July 2012.   The new version boasts many improvements, all of which have been chronicled on our website (www.globalactionpw.org) as well as on the more robust and comprehensive web presence of Reaching Critical Will.

That said, we have many issues with this treaty which we have also enumerated in various publications and policy briefs.   It is not necessarily a ‘game changing’ document, either on substance or on form.   Formally, the treaty does not adhere to the formula of other treaty processes engaged under UN auspices.  It is, as we suggested and as some key diplomats (and even the chair) noted, more like a ‘resolution on steroids’ than a document that has any real prospect of holding arms exporting states accountable to the full range of obligations listed within the ‘criteria’ and other sections of the treaty.

Moreover, this treaty was oversold from the beginning, a function more of the logistics of funding provided to select NGOs by certain states than of sustained, sober reflection on how this process could actually impact armed violence, the precedents it might establish, or the ways in which the UN might once again, rightly or wrongly, be held up to scrutiny as a body resigned to branding over substance.   Enthusiasm has its place but is no substitute for hard, sustained reflection on gaps to be filled and consequences to be anticipated.

Let us be clear once again.  The desire to create and pursue a framework for regulating arms transfers came from a good and caring place.   But that is not the end of the story. That this treaty process has created a legal framework that de facto endorses weapons transfers and which likely served as a distraction from concrete work on transfers policy over the past ten years are, from our standpoint, quite problematic.  That the treaty process also cost us so much – in political capital, in NGO relationships, in institutional credibility, in energy that could have been spent on other important, security-related issues – is a debt load that might take us quite some time to service.

Indeed, the greatest of these challenges for us is that, in pursuing a treaty in this way, we have inadvertently provided a gloss of international law sanction to the practice of weapons transfers, a practice that many of us find inherently problematic despite the UN Charter’s recognition of the right of self-defense.  We may find, assuming that we can eventually find our way back to our proper business of disarmament, that we have undermined any leverage we might otherwise have had to roll back a system that continues to pump millions of weapons into global regions that are not properly equipped to control their uses or trace their movements throughout what are often long life cycles, and with multiple iterations of use.

Weapons diversion is a critical issue for the planet and the treaty does well to highlight this, far better than the July version.   But weapons don’t divert themselves, nor is diversion likely to be as large a problem in situations where weapons transfers have been reduced or even eliminated. It will take much more than a treaty and some enthusiastic branding to build political commitments to eliminate diversion and build security based on the least possible levels of armament. As one diplomat said to us, ‘now that there appears to be legal sanction for transfers, maybe we should get in the arms business ourselves.’  We can only hope that his proverbial tongue stays in his cheek, and that other states are not thinking what he was saying.

To the sponsoring governments, the conventional arms branch of UNODA and funded (and unfunded) NGOs who have all worked hard for this treaty, please enjoy a toast to yourselves on the 3rd.   Given all the uncertainty around long-term costs and consequences, however, GAPW prefers to maintain the more sober approach.  As much as we might be tempted to think otherwise, we are not nearly ‘out of the woods’ on sound policy and practice related to transfers.   Nor have we yet had those difficult conversations with global constituents who were led to expect a treaty that will significantly impact levels of armed violence and reduce levels of transferred weaponry, only to learn that this treaty will be hard pressed to make a dent in either of those noble goals.

There are things to celebrate now, to be sure, but also much for us remaining to do and especially much for us to account for.

Dr. Robert Zuber

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