Delegates from UN member states reached a last-minute agreement on rules of procedure for negotiation of an arms trade treaty (ATT) on Feb. 17, the last day of the week-long fourth and final session of the ATT Preparatory Committee in New York. Participants agreed that consensus was necessary for adoption of substantive matters and the final treaty text.
The ATT, a potential multilateral agreement intended to regulate international trade of conventional weapons, is scheduled to be negotiated July 2-27. The rules of procedure provide guidelines for delegate participation, the roles of officers, and decision-making at the July meeting.
“We had to fight quite hard for it and were pleased that the final outcome reflected a reasonable balance,” Jo Adamson, the head of the United Kingdom’s delegation to the Conference on Disarmament (CD), said of the meeting in a Feb. 19 interview. The United Kingdom was one of the initial supporters of an ATT.
The main issue of contention at the meeting was whether the participants would vote on proposals if they could not reach consensus. Under the adopted rules of procedure, all substantive decisions must be made by consensus while procedural decisions can be made by a two-thirds majority vote, but only after the conference president has determined that “efforts to reach a consensus have been exhausted.”
An earlier draft of the rules of procedure, submitted Feb. 6, allowed for substantive matters leading up to a final text, as well as procedural issues, to be put to a vote, but required that a final text be adopted by consensus.
A number of countries, including Cuba and members of the Arab Group, objected to the Feb. 6 draft, arguing that the language was not in keeping with UN General Assembly Resolution 64/48, the mandate under which the July negotiating conference will be convened. The resolution, which was adopted in December 2009 with the support of 158 countries, states that the ATT negotiation will be conducted “on the basis of consensus.” The Cuban delegation also claimed that because the resolution “made no distinction” between procedural and substantive decisions, it required consensus on all matters.
Some critics of the draft maintained that consensus was the only way to safeguard their autonomy on such a sensitive issue as arms sales. “The reason for the introduction of this stipulation was to assure participating states that their vital security interest[s] are not cast aside by a show of hands,” the Israeli delegation said on Feb. 13.
However, Mexico, Norway, and member states of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), among others, objected to the draft rules of procedure on the grounds that they did not go far enough to ensure a robust final text. These countries supported voting in any instance in which consensus was not possible, including adoption of the treaty.
“It should be noted that matters of substance go to the heart of treaty-making,” said Eden Charles, a delegate from Trinidad and Tobago, speaking on behalf of the CARICOM countries. “[P]rogress on these issues should not be allowed to remain stagnated due to a failure to arrive at consensus as a result of unreasonable political or other divisive schemes.”
Several delegations, led by the United States, supported a middle ground between the opposing camps. These countries, whose position ultimately prevailed, argued that although disagreement on procedural matters should not hamper negotiations, consensus on substantive issues was crucial.
The United States “made a cabinet-level decision [in 2009] that we were going to participate very hard for an ATT, but only with the understanding of consensus,” Donald Mahley, special negotiator for nonproliferation at the Department of State, said in a Feb. 17 interview. The Obama administration announced its support for ATT negotiations in 2009. (See ACT, November 2009.)
Another debate at the meeting concerned the role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the negotiation process. Delegates worked to strike a balance between incorporating the perspectives of outside parties while allotting enough privacy and time for work among member states. It ultimately was decided that NGOs would be allowed to attend open meetings and could address the July conference “during one meeting specifically allocated for that purpose.”
Mahley and a number of other delegates stressed that the toughest battles over an ATT awaited them in July. Participating states have not agreed on a number of fundamentals, such as the treaty’s scope, including whether ammunition and small arms and light weapons will be covered, and the role and size of its implementation support unit. Another challenge will be to produce the treaty text during the four weeks of negotiations, the delegates said.
Committee Chairman Roberto García Moritán of Argentina has produced a draft text, but it is not an official draft treaty.
“We appreciate the chair’s text and really believe it is a representation of the discussion in [the Preparatory Committee], but it is a resource paper, not a basis for negotiation,” Mahley said.