Technology & Trade

First Arms Trade Treaty Conference of States Parties Concludes in Cancun: Now the Real Work Begins

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Amid much pomp and circumstance, the First Conference of States Parties (CSP) for the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) – the first legally binding international treaty to regulate the cross-border trade of conventional weapons – was held in Cancun, Mexico from August 24-27. Although significant progress was made in establishing the infrastructure for the ATT, the treaty has a long way to go until it lives up to its purpose of establishing the highest possible common international standards for regulating the international trade in conventional arms.

Seventy-two governments have now ratified and another 59 governments have signed the ATT, which entered into force on December 24, 2014. Sixty-seven governments, an additional 41 signatory states, and 11 observer states attended the CSP, as did 11 international and regional organizations and more than 75 representatives of civil society and industry. Preparatory meetings were held in Mexico City, Berlin, Port of Spain, Vienna and Geneva over the last year.

The CSP began with a high-level ministerial segment, including a panel of U.N. and civil society representatives as well as Mexican government officials, and then turned to a long list of general Statements by governments attending the conference. After more than a day of comments about the importance of the ATT and the CSP itself, states got down to the business of making decisions to support the implementation of the ATT and ensure that it is more than words on paper.

The CSP first adopted the rules of procedure to guide this and future CSPs. Key elements of the rules of procedure included majority decision making and the potential for all meetings to be open. Both of these had been controversial in the deliberations leading up to the CSP. The CSP also adopted financial rules for the funding of the Secretariat as well as future CSPs, including a provisional budget that will be further refined at an extraordinary session in early 2016. Until then, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was tasked with assisting with administrative matters. The Conference also established a Management Committee to provide oversight of financial and other matters related to the Secretariat to help ensure “accountability, efficiency and transparency of certain functions of the Secretariat and of financial matters on its behalf.” The Czech Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, France, Jamaica and Japan were selected as members. Although bureaucratic, the rules matter in order to establish the infrastructure to support successful and effective implementation.

One of the more dramatic aspects of the CSP was the selection of the location of the ATT Secretariat. The decision was grounded in an inherent tension amongst states parties, whether to keep it in Europe and in close proximity to the UN system, versus an independent model based in the global south. Three cities – Vienna, Geneva, and Port-of-Spain – all offered to host the Secretariat — which the treaty requires to assist States Parties in effectively implementing the treaty and organizing the CSPs – and had run active and spirited campaigns encouraging their selection. Because no candidate withdrew from the race and no potential compromise could be reached, the Conference held informal voting by secret ballot to determine a final candidate. Vienna withdrew after the first round of voting, after receiving the fewest number of votes. No candidate received the two-thirds majority agreed to by the candidates in the first round, and thus a second round of voting was conducted in which the candidates agreed only a simple majority was needed. In this second round, Geneva seemingly won Vienna’s previous votes and received 35 votes to Port of Spain’s 32. Geneva was then chosen by consensus as the location of the Secretariat.

Following the selection of the Secretariat, the CSP then turned to the selection of the Head of the Secretariat to serve a one-year term. The three candidates – Ambassador Paul Beijer of Sweden, Dumisani Dladla of South Africa, and Guy Pollard who was running as an independent candidate – gave presentations to the plenary of the Conference on their qualifications and vision for the Secretariat. After consultations with delegations, CSP President Jorge Lomónaco recommended the appointment of Dumisani Dladla, which the CSP adopted by consensus. The CSP agreed that Dladla will serve until the second Conference of State Parties, at which time a Head of Secretariat will be selected on a full-scale, merit-based selection process. 

The next CSP will take place in Geneva in the second half of 2016. The Conference confirmed Ambassador Emmanuel E. Imohe of Nigeria as the President-Designate for the second CSP and agreed that Costa Rica, Finland, Montenegro and New Zealand will serve as Vice Presidents.

One of the disappointing outcomes of the CSP was the failure to adopt reporting templates to complete the two required treaty reports: the initial report on treaty implementation as well as annual reports on arms transfers/authorizations. Governments are required to complete the initial report on implementation by December 2015 and must submit their first annual report on arms transfers/authorizations by May 31, 2016. A proposed draft template on measures to prevent the diversion of weapons, as introduced by Argentina in Geneva, also failed to be adopted.

Instead, the CSP decided to “take note,” of the reporting templates, and to establish an informal working group on reporting. The lack of reporting templates could undermine the central ATT goal of transparency in the arms trade.

The Arms Trade Treaty-Baseline Assessment Project (ATT-BAP) developed a baseline survey on ATT implementation that has already been completed by 50 States Parties. Many states suggested that their ATT-BAP reports be used to fulfill their initial reporting requirement, since the survey provides an overview of the states’ arms transfer control systems and current implementation efforts. The Future CSPs may consider adopting reporting templates, which would be an important step in promoting transparency and helping shed light on what has traditionally been an opaque and secretive trade.

Although several bureaucratic decisions were made in Cancun, it remains to be seen how the treaty will be implemented by states in practice. Without a demonstrable commitment to transparency and strict adherence to the treaty’s transfer obligations, the ATT remains in danger of not living up to its potential. Now that the structures are in place, the real and substantive work begins to ensure that the treaty lives up to high standards of transparency and accountability that are expected from the ATT. 

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