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The Arms Trade Treaty negotiations: seize the opportunity

When the penultimate meeting of the Preparatory Committee (PrepComm) for an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) convenes in New York in July, the delegates will have a packed agenda. How far they get with discussing the many outstanding issues, and how inclusive those discussions are, will have a direct bearing on whether an effective, robust and broadly accepted treaty—or indeed any treaty at all—emerges at next year’s United Nations Conference on an ATT. In this context, at least one crucial set of issues should be properly worked through: controls on the import, transit and trans-shipment of arms.

A unique opportunity

The process towards an ATT has been ground-breaking in many respects. Not least, it is the first attempt to establish common global rules for controlling arms transfers that has invited input not only from all UN member states but also arms producers and civil society. Momentum has largely been provided by a coalition of countries in the Global North and the Global South and civil society organizations from around the world. It has therefore largely avoided the usual North-South divisions often seen in UN disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control forums. This holds out the hope that whatever draft text is presented for finalization at the 2012 UN Conference will be both credible and acceptable enough to the member states to ensure its adoption—as well as its quick ratification by the overwhelming majority of countries.

The week-long July PrepComm will focus on national and international implementation of an ATT. It is, effectively, the last chance for all UN member states to put forward their proposals for the possible content of the treaty before negotiations begin at the 2012 UN conference. (The final PrepComm, due in early 2012, will mainly discuss procedural matters.)

A strong and widely ratified ATT could close the loopholes left by the current patchwork of national, regional and multilateral arms transfer control arrangements. Not only could it establish common, legally binding rules and standards for a majority of states but, crucially, it could ensure that state and non-states entities are subject to checks at each of the various stages of an international arms transfer. This would increase state control over—and responsibility for—the arms being transferred, and thus reduce the chances of them being diverted to undesirable end-users. However, without proper discussion of these controls in the upcoming PrepComm, there is a real danger that this opportunity will be missed.

Moving beyond export controls

An in-depth discussion of controls on import, transit and trans-shipment of arms would ensure that the ATT process makes a valuable contribution to efforts to prevent illicit and destabilizing arms transfers in two important ways. First, very few countries have national legislation and enforcement that provides for robust controls on these stages of an arms transfer, even though they are key nodes for the diversion of arms to the illicit arms market. The July 2011 PrepComm therefore represents a chance to learn from those countries that have effective import, transit and trans-shipment controls. While the ATT is likely to mention import, transit and trans-shipment as activities that should be controlled, highlighting existing good practices at the PrepComm could help to ensure that solid proposals for raising global norms and standards are at least on the table at the 2012 conference.

Furthermore, an open and inclusive discussion of the various responsibilities will be valuable in itself. Those countries that currently have more experience of administering import, transit and trans-shipment controls are generally smaller states of the Global South. Much of the focus in the ATT process to date has been on export controls, promoted by major Northern arms exporters keen to ensure that their own interests, concerns and practices are reflected in the ATT. There is therefore a danger that the Southern states that have played a key role in pushing the ATT forward could lose interest in the drafting process as well as in implementing any treaty that is eventually adopted. The ATT could simply impose obligations that these states see as irrelevant to their own cases, while failing to address the gaps in the transfer controls of states in the Global North.

Transforming the arms trade or codifying the status quo?

If an ATT is adopted in 2012, it should set in motion a wave of legislative and procedural reforms in many countries, as well as increasing the mobilization of resources for controlling arms transfers and generating unprecedented transparency about the arms trade. To do so it must impose obligations on states parties that are clear and subject to review. If it does not do so, it will only confirm the views of sceptical observers that the ATT process will be used simply to justify current practices and shore up the status quo.

At the same time, the ATT has to put in place mechanisms to ensure that states can receive guidance and assistance to help them fulfil their obligations, helping to overcome concerns that too many new obligations could limit the number of signatories and ratifications, holding up its entry into force.

The international community had—and missed—two similar opportunities to set global standards for controlling international arms transfers in the wake of the First World War: the 1919 St Germain Convention for the Control of the Trade in Arms and Ammunition and the 1925 League of Nations Convention for the Supervision of the International Trade in Arms and Ammunition and in Implements of War. Neither convention was ratified by enough states to enter into force, largely because they failed to assuage the concerns of smaller states. The July 2011 PrepComm will be a crucial chance to ensure that history does not repeat itself.


SIPRI at the ATT negotiations in New York, July 2011

Paul Holtom and Mark Bromley will participate in two side events during the ATT Preparatory Committee, 11-15 July 2011.

SIPRI and the Swedish Mission to the UN are co-organizing a side-event on Tuesday 12 July 2011 to launch two papers on import and transit and trans-shipment controls. Read more here.

SIPRI and the Norwegian Mission to the UN are co-organizing a side-event on Wednesday 13 July 2011 to launch a new SIPRI Policy Paper on lessons learned from existing multilateral mechanisms for reporting and monitoring an ATT. Read more here.


Paul Holtom Paul Holtom is the Head of the Conventional Arms and Ammunition Programme at UNIDIR. He was previously the Director of the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme.
Dr Mark Bromley is a Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Dual-Use and Arms Trade Control Programme.