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‘Rules of the Road’ for the Arms Trade Treaty agreed in Cancun but stiffer tests lie ahead

The first Conference of States Parties (CSP1) to the international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) drew to a close in Cancun Mexico yesterday. The ATT was adopted by a vote at the UN General Assembly in April 2013 and entered into force on 24 December 2014, 90 days after the 50th state deposited its instrument of ratification. To date, 130 states have signed the ATT and 72 have ratified, 69 of which did so in time to have voting rights at CSP1. The ATT is the first international legally binding agreement to establish standards for regulating the trade in conventional arms and preventing the illicit trade in weapons. As such, it carries enormous potential to help prevent conflict, armed violence and human rights abuses.

120 states attended CSP1, of which 67 attended as States Parties, 41 as signatories and 11 as observers. Under the ATT, CSP1 was required to adopt, by consensus, Rules of Procedure for itself and future CSPs. However, it was widely agreed that CSP1 would also need to make progress on a number of other issues that had the potential to cause disagreement and undermine the long-term health of the ATT. These included reaching agreement on reporting templates, the location and role of the Permanent Secretariat, and financing mechanisms. To facilitate this process, CSP1 was preceded by a series of formal and informal preparatory meetings in Germany, Trinidad and Tobago, Austria and Switzerland.

CSP1 made progress in all these areas and therefore marks a significant step towards the creation of a functioning ATT that fulfills the instrument’s promise. However, completing that journey will require a sustained commitment by states, civil society and industry alike.

Agreeing rules of procedure for future CSPs

Despite being a potential source of division, the Rules of Procedure were adopted by consensus at the beginning of CSP1, clearing the way for substantive discussions on other issues. The document appears to have struck a balance between upholding the primacy of state decision-making while ensuring some level of openness and transparency. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) will be allowed to speak in plenary sessions, something that the Control Arms coalition pushed for in the run up to Cancun. Interestingly, Non-States Parties and industry representatives have also been afforded the same rights. Allowing so many groups the right to speak may make for a lively exchange of views at future CSPs, but it may also result in a lack of focus. However, this was not the case at CSP1.

The Rules of Procedure also retain the mix of striving for consensus while retaining the option of majority voting that was essential to the successful negotiation of the ATT. On matters of both substance and finance, the document notes that states will strive for consensus but, if all efforts fail, a two-thirds majority can make decisions. Other arms control bodies particularly the Conference on Disarmament, have been paralyzed in recent years by an insistence that all decisions must be agreed by consensus.


Developing reporting templates for treaty implementation and arms transfers

States tasked themselves with adopting templates for the one-off reports on treaty implementation and the annual reports on arms imports and exports that States Parties are required to submit. Such templates will be essential for ensuring that information is submitted in a standardized and useable format. States made progress in reaching agreement on both templates but key issues, particular the level of detail to be provided and what information would be made public, were not resolved in the time available.

While final reporting templates were not agreed, provisional versions were adopted that States Parties are encouraged to use. A working group was also set up with the task of preparing finalized reporting templates for consideration at CSP2. However, it seems clear that unlike existing UN reporting instruments in this area—particularly the UN Register of Conventional Arms—States Parties’ reports will not automatically be made public. Instead, states will have to give express permission for them to be made generally available.

Establishing the location and role of the permanent Secretariat

One of the most hotly contested questions in the run up to CSP1 was the location of the Permanent Secretariat. Offers to host the Permanent Secretariat were made by Austria (in Vienna), Switzerland (in Geneva) and Trinidad and Tobago (in Port of Spain). Discussions in the run-up to CSP1 failed to produce a clear favourite and the issue was resolved in Cancun via a secret, informal ballot. Austria was knocked out in the first round of voting and in the second round Switzerland won 35 votes and Trinidad and Tobago 32. Trinidad subsequently withdrew from the race, paving the way for a consensus decision in favour of Geneva. While Geneva clearly has logistical advantages that Port of Spain lacks, the latter’s defeat represents a lost opportunity locate a treaty secretariat in the Southern Hemisphere and in a country that has been heavily impacted by the illicit arms trade.

CSP1 made a number of other crucial decisions about the permanent Secretariat. The South African official Dumisani Dladla was selected to head the Secretariat, a management committee was established, and a directive was adopted that outlines States Parties’ expectations for how it will operate. A provisional budget and financial rules for both the Secretariat and future CSPs were also adopted. However, certain budgetary details and issues relating to the role and functions of the Secretariat are still to be resolved.

Ensuring the future success of the ATT

The decisions taken at CSP1 provide a framework for the long-term functioning of the ATT. At the final preparatory meeting in Geneva in July there was a sense that some or all of these issues would not be resolved or generate serious disagreement. However, the future success of the ATT will depend on a range of broader issues that, of necessity, were not the subject of discussion in Cancun, particularly: (i) bringing more states in to the ATT; (ii) ensuring that states apply the treaty effectively; and (iii) providing states with implementation assistance.

There is significant scope to expand the range of state signatories and ratifications, particularly in Africa. African states were active during the ATT negotiating process but while 38 have signed the treaty only 12 have ratified. Outside Africa, there are several important arms exporters, particularly China and Russia, and arms importers, including India and Saudi Arabia, that have yet to sign the ATT. Making inroads here will require sustained diplomatic efforts. Russia did not attend CSP1 and has stated that it will not sign the Treaty. China’s position remains unclear. China attended CSP1 as an observer but restated its position that adopting the ATT via a vote at the General Assembly had been a mistake.

State’s implementation of the ATT will be measured both in terms of how they comply with the treaty’s reporting requirements and the extent to which they align their arms export practices with the normative standards laid down in the Treaty. As the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) noted in his address on the opening day of CSP1: ‘(i)f States are to join the Treaty but continue to transfer arms to belligerents with a record of war crimes or serious violations of human rights, this would severely undermine the ATT's humanitarian purpose and its credibility’. There will need to be real progress in this area if the ATT is to be seen as a success. In both areas, close civil society engagement will be crucial. The ATT Monitor, which was launched by Control Arms at CSP1, will be an important means for holding governments to account.

Providing effective implementation assistance will require a sustained commitment, both on the part of donor and partner states. The ATT covers a range of different issues that have the potential to prevent armed violence and reduce conflict, including transfer controls but also stockpile management and border controls. In each of these areas states in many parts of the world lack capacity and are looking for assistance to strengthen their national controls. While assistance programmes have been launched, including by the EU, there are still substantial gaps to be filled in this time of tight finances.


About the authors

Dr Sibylle Bauer (Germany) is Director of the SIPRI Dual-Use and Arms Trade Control Programme.

Mark Bromley is Co-Director of the SIPRI Dual-Use and Arms Trade Control Programme.



Dr Sibylle Bauer is the Director of Studies, Armament and Disarmament, at SIPRI.
Dr Mark Bromley is a Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Dual-Use and Arms Trade Control Programme.