Technology & Trade

Governments Punt on Transparency at Arms Trade Conference

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At its core, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) – the first international legally-binding treaty to regulate the international transfer of conventional arms – is about transparency of what has traditionally been an opaque and secretive trade. The first ATT Conference of States Parties (CSP) held in Cancun, Mexico from August 24-27, however, neglected to adopt any rules governing the reporting requirements of the ATT.

Transparency is essential for the long-term success of the ATT and improving oversight and accountability over the global arms trade. Transparency over State’s implementation of the ATT allows good practices to be easily identified, needs and resources to be efficiently matched and long-term monitoring of the ATT’s effectiveness to be easily undertaken. Transparency also creates an environment of accountability for arms transfer decisions, is a disincentive for irresponsible and illicit arms deals and creates a more comprehensive global understanding of the international arms trade.

The treaty requires States to prepare and make available two reports. The first is an initial, one-off report on measures undertaken to implement the treaty, including national laws, regulations and administrative measures. The second is an annual report on authorized or actual exports and imports of conventional arms. States parties are also encouraged to share information on good practices in combating on a voluntary basis.

The structure and content of these reports has not been determined. Although the preparatory process for the CSP established a working group on reporting, reporting template drafts for the initial and annual reports were presented on the basis of, ironically, mostly anonymous and confidential inputs to the facilitator from predominantly OECD States. Final versions of the templates were fraught with problems and could not be agreed. And, a proposed draft template on measures to prevent the diversion of weapons, as introduced by Argentina during the preparatory meeting in Geneva, was welcomed but not discussed and also failed to be adopted.

The CSP failed not only to adopt reporting templates to complete the two required treaty reports, but also failed to take a position on whether those reports will be made public. Differing interpretations of the treaty text have left the question of public reporting ambiguous, which could actually lead to a step backwards from the levels of transparency that already exist in non-governmental and UN-based reporting on arms transfers.

For example, the ATT-Baseline Assessment Project (ATT-BAP) allows States to assess their progress in fulfilling treaty obligations and support States working towards effective implementation. Fifty States Parties have already completed the ATT-BAP survey, which provides an article-by-article list of State obligations under the ATT, and individual country profiles and an implementation database are available publicly online.

Similarly, the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms has for more than twenty years provided an open and transparent listing of arms exports and imports for seven categories of conventional weapons. State submissions are available on an open website. Whatever templates are eventually adopted must not restrict or roll-back existing transparency of the ATT or over the global arms trade.

The CSP also deferred any decisions on reporting, deciding only to “take note” of the reporting templates and to establish an informal working group on reporting. Yet, time is running short to adopt templates to facilitate standardized and comprehensive reporting. States Parties to the treaty are required to complete their initial report on implementation within one year of the treaty’s entry into force for them, which for 61 of the current 72 States Parties will be December 2015. All States Parties must submit their first annual reports on arms transfers/authorizations by May 31, 2016.

Transparency remains a cornerstone of the CSP and is essential to guaranteeing the credibility of the ATT. The lack or future absence of appropriate reporting templates puts the very spirit of transparency at risk. Future CSPs must take significant steps to ensure public and comprehensive reporting in order to ensure that the ATT lives up to its intended potential.

Rachel Stohl is a Senior Associate at the Managing Across Boundaries Initiative of the Stimson Center

This piece originally ran in Security Assistance Monitor on September 3rd, 2015

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