Last week London motorists and pedestrians were surprised to see a lone Cold War era military tank adorned with 'Control Arms' banner slowly navigating its way around the tourist hotspots of the British capital.
Curiously, it was not a military exercise, but rather a publicity stunt by Oxfam and Amnesty International to draw attention to the need for a treaty to regulate the international conventional arms trade, which is widely referred to as the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The negotiations for the ATT will be initiated at the UN headquarters in New York today, 2 July. These negotiations are arguably a major victory for arms control advocacy groups and civil society organisations, which have been vigorously lobbying governments for close to a decade for such a treaty.
Until a few years ago, many governments were reluctant to enter into negotiations about an ATT. This was due to the sensitive security and political considerations attached to arms transfers, especially concerns by some governments that such a treaty would weaken their ability to protect themselves and/or provide military support to their allies. There were also substantial commercial interests at stake, with sales of arms and military services by the top 100 global arms-producing companies in 2010 being estimated to be US$ 411 billion (according to the highly respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute). However, the destructive and destabilising nature of the illicit arms trade, which has thrived in an unevenly regulated environment, combined with effective lobbying campaigns, led to most UN Member States agreeing to enter into negotiations on an ATT.
In the build-up to the negotiations there has been considerable debate among governments concerning those categories of conventional arms that should be included in an ATT. A minority of governments have suggested that the future treaty should only comprise those conventional arms that are defined by the UN Register of Conventional Arms (UNRCA), a voluntary international arms transfer reporting instrument that was established in 1991. The UNRCA requires reporting on the following seven categories of arms: battle tanks; armoured combat vehicles; large-calibre artillery systems; combat aircraft; attack helicopters; warships; and missiles and missile launchers. Nonetheless, a large majority of governments have raised concerns that the seven UNRCA categories are out-dated, and have motivated for a more comprehensive conventional arms list, particularly one that includes small arms, light weapons and ammunition.
Control Arms, the civil society coalition advocating for a comprehensive ATT, have suggested that such an agreement will primarily "ease the suffering caused by irresponsible transfers of conventional weapons and munitions". Such an outcome is a distinct possibility, but there is related critical benefit from such a treaty (if it is successfully negotiated). That is, an ATT will establish international standards for the regulation of the arms trade, which are likely to include criteria that governments will need to adhere to when authorising arms transfers, as well as transparency provisions. Importantly, these standards will enable citizens to hold governments to account for their arms transfer decisions.
In this regard, there has been widespread acknowledgment by governments that, under certain circumstances, arms transfers would have the potential to undermine international peace and security. Therefore a provisional list of arms transfer criteria has been proposed by the Chairman of the ATT negotiations, which is based on consultations with governments. According to the proposed criteria, governments shall not authorize conventional arms transfer if there is a substantial risk that those conventional arms would:
- Be used in a manner that would seriously undermine peace and security or provoke, prolong or aggravate internal, regional, subregional or international instability;
- Be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian law;
- Be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international human rights law;
- Be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international criminal law, including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes;
- Seriously impair poverty reduction and socio-economic development or seriously hamper the sustainable development of the recipient State;
- Be diverted to unauthorized end-users for use in a manner inconsistent with the principles, goals and objectives of the Treaty, taking into account the risk of corruption;
- Be used in the commission of transnational organized crime as defined in the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime; and
- Be used to support, encourage or perpetrate terrorist acts.
As the ATT negotiations get underway in New York this week it is apparent that governments are unevenly equipped in terms of arms control experience and knowledge. Major arms exporting States are likely to have a negotiation advantage over other States, particularly African States, the vast majority of which do not manufacture and export arms. Consequently, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) has compiled an ATT Negotiation Toolkit for African States in an attempt to contribute to a leveling of the treaty negotiation 'playing field'. The main objective of this toolkit is for it to be a reference guide for those African government representatives that will be negotiating the provisions of the ATT.
Guy Lamb is a senior research fellow in the transnational threats and international crime division.