Technology & Trade

Progress Made, Difficult Decisions Remain As Governments Conclude Arms Trade Treaty Meeting

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The latest round of high-level meetings on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) – the world’s first treaty regulating transfers of conventional weapons concluded — and while progress was made, difficult decisions still remain. The government of Austria hosted approximately 90 governments and more than 40 observers from a variety of United Nations agencies, the European Union, the Wassenaar Arrangement, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other civil society organizations in two days of informal consultations for the First Conference of States Parties (CSP) to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). This was the fourth meeting that has been organized to move towards the establishment of critical treaty infrastructures and preparations for the CSP – which will be held in Mexico City from August 24-27.

The ATT, which entered into force on December 24, 2014, represents the first global legally binding agreement to regulate international transfers of conventional weapons and establishes criteria for governments to apply when making international arms transfer decisions. Sixty-seven governments have now ratified the treaty – with the most recent being Liberia shortly after the Vienna Conference concluded – and 130 governments have signed.  The gathering in Vienna was the fourth meeting that has been organized to move towards the establishment of critical treaty infrastructures and preparations for the first CSP. Previous meetings were held in in Mexico CityBerlin, Germany, and Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago.

Although governments remain focused on treaty universalization, countries have now turned their attention to treaty implementation. With time running short, governments have moved away from simply stating their general positions on the ATT and are focusing on the negotiation of a sustainable way forward. For many, the goal is to ensure that governments understand good practice to implement the ATT effectively and in compliance with all treaty obligations. The Vienna Conference, therefore, was focused on the practicalities of treaty implementation.

Civil society, industry, and multilateral bodies were invited to share their experiences and suggestions for how best to achieve successful treaty implementation. On the second day of the Conference, one panel featured the ATT-Baseline Assessment Project (ATT-BAP) and discussed how ATT-BAP can be used to support effective implementation, detailed lessons learned from the Wassennaar Arrangement that may have applicability for developing the ATT’s infrastructure, and presented views from the aerospace and defense industry on the role that private sector partners can play in ensuring that the treaty is implemented without undue or negative consequences.

With the first CSP only four months away, governments are focused on the development of the necessary processes and infrastructure to set the treaty up for future success. In the long term, the CSP will provide a forum to review the operation, implementation, and efficacy of the treaty. In accordance with the treaty text, the first CSP is responsible for adopting the rules of procedure for the operation of future CSPs, and may also take decisions regarding future meetings, the financing of the treaty infrastructure, as well as the location, structure and financing for the ATT Secretariat. Vienna, Geneva, and Port-of-Spain are all vying to host the Secretariat — the organization that is required to assist States Parties in effectively implementing the treaty and organizing the CSPs.

Although the Vienna Conference was informal, organizers held four substantive sessions in order to help governments move the development of the treaty’s infrastructure forward.  These four sessions focused on the topics of (1) the rules of procedure for the Conference of States Parties, (2) the establishment of the ATT Secretariat, (3) financing of the treaty’s infrastructure, and (4) treaty reporting requirements.

A significant portion of the Vienna Conference focused on rules of procedure. Although the treaty is clear about the desire to reach consensus on treaty decisions and the conditions that would require voting, governments debated the specifics of these rules with contentious discussions regarding the deferment of decisions that would require voting for 24-48 hours before a vote was taken.

During the discussion on financing, governments discussed potential models to pay for the treaty’s operation. The most favored model seemed to be a hybrid that would include both voluntary and assessed contributions. One of the most surprising discussions at the conference was the idea that civil society should be required to pay to attend future ATT meetings in order to demonstrate their commitment to the treaty. This proposal is without precedent, and though it was supported by the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Finland it was generally not well received by other participants and reflected divergent views about the participation of civil society in ATT meetings.

The conference also focused on reporting requirements. During the previous meeting in Port-of-Spain, countries discussed a template for the initial report on treaty implementation that governments are required to complete by December 2015. At the Vienna meeting, governments turned to the annual report on arms transfers/authorizations that will cover calendar year 2015 and must be submitted by May 31, 2016. A working group of civil society experts contributed to the template design at the invitation of the chair of the working group on reporting.

The next meeting will be held in Geneva from July 6-8. The pressure will be on governments to come close to final decisions on the outstanding issues requiring agreement. It is hoped that by the time States Parties arrive in Mexico City in August, the difficult decisions – such as issues pertaining to participation, financing, and other rules of procedure – will have been reached so that the first CSP can focus on ensuring the long-term success of the ATT. Without sincere effort during the intersessional period, governments run the risk of jeopardizing the decision-making process during the first CSP and rendering the conference incapable of making the decisions necessary to set the treaty up for sustainable success.

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

Photo credit: Rachel Stohl

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