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Arms Trade Treaty Stumbles Towards a Grand Finale

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 14 2011 (IPS) - After six years of protracted negotiations, a largely sceptical international community is moving towards readying a long outstanding global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) for signature by July next year.

“Governments have made a tremendous amount of progress toward this important treaty,” Dr. Natalie Goldring, a senior research fellow at the Center for Peace and Security Studies of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, told IPS.

“They are focused on how best to ensure that arms transfers are not used to violate international humanitarian or human rights law,” said Goldring, who has been monitoring ATT negotiations since 2006.

One key obstacle, she said, is procedural. The United States has insisted on a “consensus process”, which risks allowing a single country to undermine or even derail the process.

“So far, fortunately, there is considerable momentum toward a treaty,” said Goldring.

A weeklong meeting of the preparatory committee, which began Monday, has been focusing primarily on procedural issues relating to the implementation of the ATT and how best to make it operational.

And now, the scene is being set for a key U.N. conference, possibly in mid-2012, which will approve the treaty, described as a “comprehensive and legally binding instrument” establishing “common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms”.

Jeff Abramson, coordinator of the Control Arms Secretariat, a global civil society coalition, says with France, Germany and Britain now caught in scandals involving pending and past arms transfers to places where there is substantial risk of human rights abuses, “there has never been a greater need for strong global arms controls”.

“You can’t come to the meeting praising the process to get a global arms deal done and at the same time engage in irresponsible arms transfers,” he said.

“We need countries to negotiate a treaty with teeth, something that will make a difference on the ground, in the communities where thousands of people die every year because of the poorly regulated arms trade,” he said.

Speaking on behalf of the 27-member European Union (EU), Annalisa Giannella, director for non-proliferation and disarmament at the European External Action Service, told the preparatory committee the EU is convinced that the issue of transparency is a fundamental one for the success of the ATT.

“Transparency is indeed an overarching issue and an important principle touching upon several aspects of ATT,” she said.

Giannella said the objective of increased transparency and accountability in the international arms trade should be achieved, inter alia, through a system of regular reporting by member states and information exchanges among them.

“As far as reporting is concerned,” she pointed out, “we believe that ATT should foresee an obligation for states parties to submit regular reports about the implementation and application of the provisions of the treaty.”

She said the EU and its member states have over time acquired considerable experience in developing transparency mechanisms and are ready to share the lessons learned concerning advantages and drawbacks of different approaches.

In a statement issued here, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) focused on the role of arms brokers who are mostly responsible for the spread of illegal arms to the world’s war zones.

“If the activities of brokers are not controlled, then the Arms Trade Treaty will be easily undermined by the activities of unscrupulous brokers operating outside of any regulatory framework or from the territory of (member) states with little or no controls in place,” the statement warned.

In 2006, the General Assembly called for the drafting of the treaty primarily to regulate the arms trade – even while it acknowledged “the right of all member states to manufacture, import, export, transfer and retain conventional arms for self-defence and security needs”.

Consequently, the Assembly established a group of governmental experts to investigate the prospects for a global treaty.

Only one government voted against that resolution: the United States.

After the Group of Governmental Experts issued its unanimous report recommending further consideration of an arms trade treaty, the United Nations continued the process with an Open-Ended Working Group to consider the possibility of pursuing an arms trade treaty.

Three years later, the General Assembly voted to continue working toward negotiation of an ATT, including agreeing on a 2012 treaty negotiating session.

With the change in administration in the United States, the U.S. government’s position on ATT also changed, and Washington voted in favour of negotiating a treaty.

Goldring of Georgetown University told IPS that although the U.S. government now supports an Arms Trade Treaty, it has been excessively cautious on some key treaty provisions.

For example, she pointed out, the U.S. delegation has argued against including ammunition in the proposed treaty.

“But to be effective, an Arms Trade Treaty also needs to be comprehensive, and must include diverse forms of transfers, such as sales, gifts, and transfers of technology, and it also must include the weapons themselves, their components, and their ammunition,” she said.

Perhaps the most significant concern is that, as with other negotiations of this type, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.

“This means we probably won’t know the outcome until the last session on the last day of the 2012 conference,” Goldring said.

But the progress so far is impressive, and gives hope for the formal negotiation process, she declared.

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