Technology & Trade

Substance Lacking at Arms Trade Treaty Meeting in Geneva

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By Racehl Stohl:

Arms Trade Treaty States Parties, signatories, industry, and civil society representatives met in Geneva on February 29 for an Extraordinary Meeting to address the still undecided administrative issues plaguing the efficient and effective operation of the treaty. In August, the First Conference of States Parties (CSP) to 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 and laid out the process for establishing the treaty’s infrastructure. However, in the intervening months, little progress has been made in setting up the treaty’s secretariat, preparing for the upcoming second CSP, or addressing the treaty’s implementation.

The CSP established a Management Committee — comprised of the Czech Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, France, Jamaica, and Japan — to provide oversight of financial and other matters related to the Secretariat and to help ensure “accountability, efficiency and transparency of certain functions of the Secretariat and of financial matters on its behalf.” Yet, many governments spent the opening session of the Extraordinary Meeting criticizing the process, claiming that not enough time was given to consultations on the administrative decisions and that papers were not circulated far enough in advance.

Eighty-one governments have now ratified and another 59 governments have signed the ATT, which entered into force on December 24, 2014. In addition to last year’s CSP, preparatory meetings were held in Mexico City, Berlin, Port of Spain, Vienna and Geneva during 2014-2015. The Second CSP will take place in Geneva August 22-26 2016. The current president of the meeting, Ambassador Emmanuel E. Imohe of Nigeria, will continue his role as the president of the second CSP. Costa Rica, Finland, Montenegro and New Zealand will serve as Vice Presidents and, as Ambassador Imohe declared during the Extraordinary Meeting, will act as an extension of the president for consultations.

In August, the CSP also selected a provisional head of the Secretariat. However, for reasons that remain unclear, the candidate selected at the CSP, Dumisani Dladla of South Africa, has not yet taken up his position — though it was announced that he has now signed his contract and will begin work soon. Though some details remained undecided and were thus tabled for a future  meeting, the Extraordinary Meeting did manage to make some decisions about the operation of — and the hiring of two additional staff for — the Secretariat.

In addition to discussions on the financing and structure of the Secretariat, states highlighted the central role of reporting in the ATT. Reporting allows states and other key stakeholders to better analyze how States Parties interpret and understand the treaty’s provisions and obligations, and provides a means to assess treaty compliance and implementation. Reports also provide opportunities to match assistance requests with available resources and can highlight best practices and draw from lessons learned and models that could be adapted for national use.

Unfortunately, the first CSP failed to adopt reporting templates to complete the two required treaty reports: the initial report on treaty implementation and annual reports on arms transfers/authorizations. Sixty-one governments were required to complete the initial report on implementation by December 2015, but only 42 submitted their reports on time. The first annual report on arms transfers/authorizations is due by May 31, 2016. The Extraordinary Meeting decided to establish an informal working group on reporting, though ironically the terms of reference may allow meetings of this transparency-focused group to be held in secret.

Since 2013, Stimson’s ATT-Baseline Assessment Project (ATT-BAP) has assisted states in understanding their reporting obligations in the ATT and preparing them to complete their reports. At the Extraordinary Meeting, the government of Sweden proposed that the ATT-BAP project portal be turned over to the Secretariat and repurposed to become the website of the Secretariat. The proposal, also supported by the United Kingdom and Australia, would allow the Secretariat to begin its work in a quicker, simpler, and cheaper fashion by allowing the Secretariat to modify the site’s outward appearances rather than requiring it to begin from scratch.

Due to these outstanding issues, administrative and logistical topics occupied the meeting’s entire agenda and no time was allotted for issues of substance and implementation of the ATT’s provisions. Control Arms — an international coalition of civil society organizations – requested an agenda item to discuss State Parties’ transfers of arms to Saudi Arabia that might be used in the conflict in Yemen but was denied. The president of the conference and other States Parties said issues of substance could wait until the second CSP. In a later intervention, Control Arms spoke about the slow pace of progress in setting up the treaty’s infrastructure and the dangers this poses to people suffering from violations of the ATT today. The Control Arms speaker from Yemen called on states to address issues regarding violations of Saudi Arabia in Yemen immediately rather than wait another six months until the CSP.

Because states have not yet made the administrative decisions necessary to help the treaty function efficiently and effectively, no time has been granted during the first six months after the CSP to address any substantive issues or the treaty’s implementation. Thus far, there has not been significant political will to ensure that the treaty lives up to its potential.  Disappointingly, there is scant evidence that high standards of transparency and accountability will be reached if these concerns are not dealt with soon.

Rachel Stohl is the director of the Conventional Defense program at the Stimson Center.

Photo credit: John Cooke via flickr
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