Technology & Trade

Arms Trade Treaty Still Not Meeting Potential

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Five years ago, governments from around the world adopted the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) – the first legally-binding treaty to regulate the international transfer of conventional weapons. In August, governments, civil society, international organizations, and industry met in Tokyo to reflect on the treaty’s implementation and ostensibly assess efforts to bring greater transparency and responsibility to the global arms trade. Yet the meeting overlooked key substantive issues, all while the world continues to watch in horror as conventional weapons are used to wage war and contribute to immeasurable human suffering. From Yemen to Syria, arms continue to flow with impunity and governments fail to utilize the ATT to its full potential.

The Fourth Conference of States Parties (CSP4) to the ATT was held from August 20-24 in Tokyo, Japan. Seventy-nine of the 95 States Parties for whom the ATT has entered into force were in attendance. Two ratifying States, Brazil and Cameroon, for whom the treaty has not yet entered into force also participated in the conference. Twenty-three signatory states, including the United States, and nine observer states, including China, also attended the meeting. In addition, seven regional and multilateral organizations and more than 50 civil society organizations participated in the work of the CSP. Ambassador Nobushige Takamizawa of Japan served as President of the CSP, with Argentina, Georgia, France and South Africa serving as Vice Presidents.

Although CSP4 did contain more substantive conversations than previous conferences, such discussions were limited. Significant time was spent discussing unpaid financial contributions, the operation of the Voluntary Trust Fund, and movement of sponsorship management from the United Nations Development Programme to the ATT Secretariat. Regrettably, the CSP did not discuss problematic arms transfers and potential treaty violations. As a result, a range of exceptional albeit compact side events remained the sole opportunity for participants to engage in discussion about the treaty’s impact and potential challenges facing effective implementation.

The high-level opening session of the conference featured remarks from the Foreign Minister of Japan, Fumio Kishida, a video message from Under Secretary-General and UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu, and Director of the Geneva Branch of the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, Anja Kaspersen. The final two panelists, Dr. Helen Durham of the International Committee of the Red Cross and civil society representative Shobha Pradhan Shrestha of Women for Peace and Democracy-Nepal, focused their remarks on civilian harm caused by the unregulated arms trade and shared powerful stories of tragedy and survival from around the world.

The thematic focus of this CSP4 was weapons diversion. The conference held a special session on diversion, with discussion focused on the roles that various stakeholders can play in mitigating diversion, as well as on good practices and lessons learned from diversion prevention.

The other key substantive issue discussed at the conference was reporting. States must complete an initial report regarding their implementation measures within the first year of becoming a State party. However, only 73 percent of States Parties that are due to submit an initial report have done so. Moreover, ten governments chose to make their initial reports confidential, thus limiting insights into their implementation processes. In addition to the initial report on implementation, States Parties are also required to complete a report on their annual arms exports and imports. At the time of the conference, however, only 54 percent of States Parties submitted their 2017 annual reports.  Three States kept their 2017 annual reports confidential. This marks a decline in reporting rates from the previous year and a downward trajectory over time. Such a trend is particularly disturbing as reporting remains a cornerstone of ATT implementation and a key priority of the ATT. Without knowing who is selling what and to whom, impunity in the arms trade is allowed to flourish. However, the Conference did not take any meaningful steps to address reporting deficiencies beyond referring further discussion to the Working Group on Reporting and Transparency.

At the conclusion of the meeting, CSP4 delegates elected Ambassador Jānis Kārkliņš of Latvia as the President of the Fifth Conference of States Parties, which will take place in Geneva, Switzerland from August 26-30, 2019.  Informal preparatory and working group meetings will be held at dates to be confirmed in Geneva as well. CSP4 also elected Benin, Chile, Ireland and the Republic of Korea as Vice Presidents of CSP5. Issues related to the size and membership of the Management Committee were not resolved and will continue to hold informal negotiations in order to come to a satisfactory resolution.  

In the five years since the ATT was adopted, the treaty is in danger of losing its momentum. In his closing remarks at CSP4, Ambassador Kārkliņš remarked that his would be a low cost but high intensity presidency.” States must be equally intense about ensuring that the promise of the ATT is not forgotten and that meaningful and effective implementation goes hand-in-hand with efforts to mitigate the negative consequences of unregulated and irresponsible arms transfers.  

Rachel Stohl is Managing Director and directs the Conventional Defense program at the Stimson Center.

Photo credit: Control Arms
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