In a renewed effort to complete negotiations on the first treaty establishing common standards for international conventional arms transfers, representatives from more than 100 states are expected to gather later this month in New York for what is being described as the “final” UN conference for concluding an arms trade treaty (ATT).
Peter Woolcott, the Australian ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, will serve as the president for the March 18-28 negotiations. According to the UN resolution mandating the conference, the talks will be based on the draft treaty that emerged from the July 2012 negotiating forum on the treaty, which failed to reach consensus on the text. (See ACT, September 2012.)
According to Woolcott and other diplomats involved in the process, the short amount of time available to reach consensus on a final text means that states will have to limit their proposed adjustments and clarifications to the draft text. As a result, Woolcott has been stressing that the meeting should not take up the limited time with general debate but should work in a “focused” and “businesslike” way on concluding a treaty, according to diplomats.
The draft treaty would establish legal prohibitions on arms and ammunition transfers that contribute to war crimes, require that all states put in place national regulations on international arms transfers, set forth common international standards for approval of the transfers, and mandate regular reporting on arms transfers.
On Nov. 7, the UN General Assembly First Committee approved the resolution mandating the March conference by a margin of 157-0, with 18 abstentions. Four of the world’s five largest arms suppliers—China, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States—voted in favor of the resolution, while Russia abstained. The General Assembly gave its final approval to the resolution in December.
The rules of procedure allow the treaty to remain on the assembly’s agenda, meaning a vote to endorse the treaty could be called after the conference concludes. Many civil society leaders argue that this situation would enable states to carry forward a widely supported text that fails to garner consensus in March.
Although the proposed ATT has drawn support from the vast majority of UN member states and a large number of nongovernmental development, human rights, and religious organizations, several potential obstacles could complicate the negotiations.
Because of the relatively short time available, treaty opponents could stymie efforts to finalize the text simply by creating delays, diplomats involved in the treaty talks said. The rules of procedure stipulate that the conference must approve the final treaty text by consensus.
In recent weeks, a small group of states that includes Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and others calling themselves the “Friends of the ATT” has emerged. The group includes a number of delegations that have expressed reservations about key aspects of the July 26 draft treaty.
In addition, some major arms-supplier states and states most affected by the illicit global arms trade may seek to modify several key sections of the treaty when the conference begins, diplomats said.
For example, several African states are expected to press for the inclusion of ammunition in the scope of the treaty in a way that mandates import and export regulation. They argue that the transfer of ammunition helps to fuel armed violence as much as weapons transfers do. The current draft treaty would require states “to establish and maintain a national control system to regulate the export of ammunition for conventional arms under the scope of this Treaty.”
Under the U.S. Arms Export Control Act, the United States already licenses the import and export of ammunition, but a separate law passed in 1986 restricts reporting on the importation of ammunition. U.S. officials continue to tell other delegations that they oppose the inclusion of ammunition in the scope section of the treaty.
Chinese diplomats have objected to possible changes to the current text that would explicitly apply the treaty guidelines and prohibitions to state-to-state “gifts” of conventional weapons. Other states are concerned that transfers labeled as gifts could create a loophole in the treaty.
Officials from Russia, which continues to resupply the Assad regime in Syria with weapons during that country’s civil war, continue to express concerns about a core provision in the draft treaty that would prohibit authorization of conventional arms transfers “for the purpose of facilitating” genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes as defined by the Geneva Conventions of 1949.
On the other hand, nongovernmental organizations and many governments, including Norway and Switzerland, are seeking to strengthen that section of the treaty or at least modify it to ensure it is not interpreted in a way that may undermine existing understandings of international humanitarian law.
In a speech before the UN Security Council on Feb. 13, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on states to conclude the treaty. “We all have a responsibility to protect. Violence against civilians is unquestionably abetted by the free flow of weapons. We urgently need a robust and comprehensive agreement that addresses the humanitarian impact of the poorly regulated trade in arms,” Ban said.