Technology & Trade

First Formal Arms Trade Treaty Preparatory Meeting held in Port of Spain, Trinidad

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After an absence from a previous key meeting, the United Sates returned to the international effort to prepare for the effective implementation of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) last week in Port of Spain, Trinidad. A U.S. delegation joined nearly 90 governments and more than 50 observers at the first formal ATT preparatory meeting in advance of the first Conference of States Parties (CSP).

The ATT establishes legal standards and criteria governing the global conventional arms trade, which had largely been unregulated and allowed weapons to flow with impunity from and into conflict zones — often fueling violence and crime worldwide. The treaty was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in April 2013 and now has 63 States Parties and 130 signatories, including the United States. The treaty entered into force on December 24, 2014.

The preparatory meetings aim to set up the treaty’s infrastructure – ranging from rules of procedure, financing mechanisms, and the treaty’s secretariat – in advance of the CSP, which will be held in Mexico City from August 24-27, 2015. The CSP will formalize the institutions and processes when adopted. Previous informal meetings were held in Berlin and Mexico City.

Though the U.S. delegation participated in the Mexico City meeting last September, they chose not to attend the Berlin meeting in November due to issues relating to meeting participation. Specifically, the United States wanted to allow industry and civil society organizations that did not support the object and purpose of the ATT to participate in the meetings, which — under the process established by Mexico — was not permitted. For the two previous meetings, only civil society groups that supported the ATT were allowed to attend. In Berlin, the decision was made to open participation and allow representatives from industry as well as groups that do not support, and indeed have been outspoken against, the ATT to participate in future meetings.  

More than half of the first day of the Trinidad meeting was focused on the question of participation in the CSP. Governments expressed wide-ranging opinions for participation. While some governments wanted a differentiated role for civil society — meaning that those supporting the object and purpose of the ATT would be able to participate in a more substantial way than those opposing the treaty — others, most notably the United States, wanted all civil society organizations treated equally. Similarly, while some states wanted treaty signatories to have the same privileges as States Parties, others felt that only States Parties should have any decision-making roles. A tense debate ensued and no final decision was reached.

Participants also discussed the financing of the Secretariat and treaty meetings, with various models of voluntary and assessed contributions proposed. No decisions were made regarding financing.

The Trinidad meeting finalized the remaining preparatory meeting schedule. The next formal preparatory meeting will be held in Geneva, Switzerland from July 6-8. An informal meeting will be held in Vienna, Austria on April 20-21 with plans to organize working groups on the most contentious issues.

The Trinidad meeting produced a draft procedural report, which formalized the decisions taken at previous meetings, such as appointing Mexico the host of the provisional secretariat – the administrative structure responsible for planning the first CSP. The meeting also formalized the establishment of a “Friends of the Chair” committee to provide advice to Mexico in the planning of the preparatory meetings, made up of hosts of previous and future meetings. Facilitators were approved to conduct consultations and intersessional work: rules of procedure (Mexico), secretariat (France), reporting (Sweden) and financing (Ghana, assisted by Australia).

The only matter of substance agreed to at the Trinidad meeting was that the first annual report on authorized arms exports and imports will cover calendar year 2015 with a submission deadline of May 31, 2016. It had been unclear if the report would be due on May 31, 2015 and therefore cover only 7 days of exports (December 24-31 2014). For practical reasons, governments decided to cover a full year of exports/imports, hoping that a standard reporting template will be adopted at the CSP.

Participants also discussed a proposed template developed by civil society at the request of the reporting facilitator for the initial report on implementation of the ATT, as required under Article 13 (1). Several governments suggested simply utilizing the ATT-Baseline Assessment Survey as the basis for the report, noting that it is particularly practical because it was developed by a broad spectrum of states and civil society, it has already been completed by 44 states, and it contains all the mandatory treaty obligations.

The Trinidad meeting was a useful step forward, but governments are becoming increasingly concerned that too many issues remain unresolved and that time is quickly running out before the first CSP. Key technical issues, such as the rules of procedure and financing, remain undecided and contentious. None of the candidates for the ATT Secretariat – Austria, Switzerland, and Trinidad and Tobago – are backing down from their bids to host. If tough decisions are not made soon, the treaty risks losing the momentum that spurred its adoption and swift entry into force. Without a strong and sustainable infrastructure, the treaty will be unable to fulfill its goals of transparency and accountability and will not lead to the effective implementation its supporters desire.

Follow Rachel StohlStimson’s Managing Across Boundaries initiative, and Stimson on Twitter.

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