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Talks Continue on Arms Treaty, an Instrument for “Extreme Cases”

Aprille Muscara

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 10 2010 (IPS) - Experts from over 100 U.N. member states will convene Monday for two weeks to discuss the elements to be included in a long-awaited Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) – what will be a multilateral, legally-binding document regulating the transfer of conventional weapons and small and light arms.

The upcoming meeting is the first of four Preparatory Committee sessions to take place in 2010 and 2011, leading up to the 2012 Conference during which the ATT is expected to be formally negotiated and ratified. These sessions also build upon four years of discussions by government experts and working groups since December 2006, when the U.N. General Assembly adopted the first of three resolutions calling for an international Arms Trade Treaty.

A report published by Oxfam International and 11 other non- governmental organizations in October 2009 denounced the “snail’s pace” of “diplomatic wrangling” surrounding the ATT, noting that in the then three years since the first resolution was adopted, 2.1 million people – or 2,000 people per day – had died from armed violence.

Ambassador Roberto Garcia Moritan of Argentina, chair of the Preparatory Committee, highlighted the importance and complexity of ATT negotiations at a press conference on Friday.

“The purpose of the [ATT] is to try to adopt common international standards to be applied by all states when they export and import weapons,” said Moritan. “It’s a very delicate and sensitive matter and at the same time a very urgent one.”

Moritan acknowledged the divergent interests and “preoccupations” of different states and regions, and told IPS that the ATT would be an instrument for “extreme cases” of irresponsible weapons transfers. As an example, Moritan cited the 1994 Rwandan genocide, during which weapons were knowingly sold to groups conducting severe human rights abuses, raising questions of how less clear-cut cases would be treated by the ATT.

“Of course countries are looking into the question with caution, but… I’m still confident that most member states, even [abstainers like China, India and Russia] – which are important producers and very responsible states – they will see the advantage of having a multilateral instrument of this sort, because at the end of the day an instrument of this kind shouldn’t affect the sovereign right of any nation to buy, to produce, to export weapons to any country,” Moritan told IPS.

Moritan noted that approximately 80 percent of conventional arms sales is dominated by a small number of countries and that over 100 nations produce conventional weapons.

“Although it’s an issue that has been in the agenda since the League of Nations, somehow it’s a new issue in the sense that we are now facing multilateral negotiations,” Moritan told IPS.

Major arms dealers Britain, France and Germany support the Arms Trade Treaty. However, 19 states abstained from voting on the U.N. General Assembly’s third and most recent resolution about the ATT in late 2009, including China and Russia – two major arms exporters — and Egypt, India, Iran and Pakistan – nations with active domestic arms industries. Zimbabwe was the only state to vote against the resolution.

Different in this round of discussions on the potential objectives, scope and parameters of the ATT is the backing of the United States, the world’s biggest conventional arms dealer, accounting for about 40 percent of the global trade, according to Amnesty International.

The U.S. voted in support of the 2009 resolution, reversing the policy of the previous George W. Bush administration. In the past, the U.S. has claimed that national controls on conventional weapons transfers would be more effective than a multilateral treaty in preventing the diversion of legally traded weapons into the illegal market, where they could be purchased by terrorist groups or used for human rights violations.

The U.S. voted against the first two U.N .General Assembly resolutions on the ATT in 2006 and 2008.

Of concern to groups like Oxfam International and Amnesty International is the stipulation that ATT negotiations are to be decided by consensus – a recommendation made in 2008 by the Group of Governmental Experts, a predecessor of next week’s Preparatory Committee.

This provision for consensus decision-making was formally included in the 2008 and 2009 U.N. General Assembly resolutions, and was framed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last October as a condition of U.S. support of the ATT.

Clinton stated that consensus decision-making – which effectively gives states veto power during negotiations – was necessary to prevent states from taking advantage of loopholes in order to engage in irresponsible arms sales. However, some fear that it will serve to water down the final product and appeal to the lowest common denominator – or, indeed, address only the most extreme of cases.

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