Technology & Trade

Time Running Out to set Arms Trade Treaty up for Success

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The final preparatory meeting for the First Conference of States Parties (CSP) for the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) – the first legally binding international treaty regulating the cross-border trade of conventional weapons – was held in Geneva, Switzerland last week. It was the fifth meeting organized to move towards the development of critical treaty infrastructures and preparations for the CSP – which will be held in Cancun, Mexico from August 24-27. With the CSP in Cancun fast approaching, final decisions on many outstanding treaty issues will require governments to come to agreement in very short order. Without a willingness to compromise and find solutions to the difficult questions that remain, the Arms Trade Treaty is in danger of not living up to its potential of developing a more transparent and responsible arms trade.

Sixty-nine governments have now ratified and another 61 governments have signed the ATT, which establishes criteria for governments to apply when making international arms transfer decisions. The treaty entered into force on December 24, 2014.

The Geneva meeting was the last formal opportunity for States to discuss important decisions that must be made in advance of the first CSP. Previous meetings were held in in Mexico CityBerlinPort of Spain, and Vienna. The government of Switzerland hosted at least 100 governments and over 50 observers from a variety of United Nations agencies, the European Union, the Wassenaar Arrangement, the International Committee of the Red Cross, civil society organizations, and industry to address key issues and focus on the development of the necessary processes and infrastructure to set the treaty up for future success. The three days were spent discussing (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.

The most contentious issue at the Geneva Conference focused on rules of procedure. The largest issues related to the decision-making (process and procedures) and participation of civil society, NGOs, and industry. Many States welcomed the removal of the idea that civil society be required to pay for attendance in future meetings, and States indicated that with a few remaining tweaks to language, they expect that the rules will be finalized and adopted at the CSP. 

Governments also struggled to find agreement with regard to the financing of the treaty and its infrastructure, which are intertwined. Governments are unable to determine a financing system without knowing what the treaty’s infrastructure will look like. The conference also discussed the treaty’s reporting requirements and the need to adopt templates for 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. At this meeting, Argentina also proposed a draft template on measures to prevent the diversion of weapons, a report that is voluntary under the terms of the treaty. In order to establish a strong precedent of transparency and confidence in the ATT, States will need toadopt clear and comprehensive reporting templates.

The mood in Geneva was extremely tense as delegates recognized that time was running short to reach these difficult decisions. Governments would like to see these issues solved so that the first CSP can focus on ensuring the long-term success of the ATT.

The CSP will begin with a high-level ministerial segment, but then must adopt the rules of procedure for the operation of future CSPs. However, the CSP may also decide on future meetings, the financing of the treaty infrastructure, as well as the location, structure, head, and financing for the ATT Secretariat. Three cities – Vienna, Geneva, and Port-of-Spain – have all offered to host the Secretariat – which the treaty requires to assist States Parties in effectively implementing the treaty and organizing the CSPs. The selection process has become increasingly politicized and the three candidates made presentations on their proposals on the meeting’s final day. With no candidate pulling out of the race, and no clear path forward, there is a sense of urgency to find a solution at the CSP. In addition, the job announcement for the head of the Secretariat was shared at the Geneva meeting. Three candidates have put their names forward for the position. A selection committee will review their applications and the desire is to name a head of the Secretariat for a one-year position in Cancun.

Although these issues may appear tedious and procedural, they are crucial for getting the treaty off on the right foot and establishing a sustainable and effective infrastructure. Moreover, transparency is the heart of the treaty and without it, the global arms trade – which for decades has operated in the shadows – will continue to allow irresponsible and illicit actors to continue to act with impunity.

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

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