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8 July, Vol. 7, Ed. 3

What comes first? The Secretariat or its leader?
Nic Marsh | Peace Research Institute Oslo


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At the start of business this morning, the Chair of the Provisional Secretariat Ambassador Lomónaco summarised the tangled web of decision-making that has prevented States from making progress on how the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) Secretariat will function, be managed and be located both physically and institutionally. 

The Secretariat will play a key role in, as stated in the Treaty text, assisting “States Parties in the effective implementation of this Treaty.” According to the Treaty, it will play vital roles such as:  receiving and making available reports, matching offers and requests for assistance, and organizing conferences. One of the main tasks of this Preparatory Meeting and the first full Conference of States Parties (CSP) will be to decide where the Secretariat will be located, what it will do and how it will do it, its funding, and who will run it. 

As described by Ambassador Lomónaco, states are debating in circles. There has so far been little consensus on key areas of how the Secretariat would function. Some delegations quite reasonably wanted to decide upon the roles of the Secretariat first and then work out the budget. Others have argued that the Secretariat’s roles could be determined based on available financial resources.  

In either case it is clear that the Secretariat will be small, so as a consequence a key question is how it out-sources support functions (such as interpretation at conferences). Some states would like it to form an arrangement with the UN to use UN expertise. Others prefer a more flexible approach whereby the Secretariat would employ a variety of different specialists. The form and level of outsourcing will affect the Secretariat’s roles, personnel and budget. 

But it’s difficult to even start deciding on that balance without knowing where the Secretariat will be located – in close proximity to existing UN infrastructure or not. However, in order to decide between the three candidates for hosting the secretariat (Vienna, Austria; Geneva, Switzerland; and Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago) the delegates really need to first have a proper understanding of exactly what the Secretariat will be doing and what its financial resources will be, in order to better assess the actual advantages and drawbacks of each location. 

To further complicate the situation, the mandate of the Mexican government to act as Provisional Secretariat will end with the first CSP. Putting a body in place to take over from Mexico is critical, even on a temporary or short-term basis. Hence, the Ambassador’s proposal to open a recruitment process for a short-term head for the Secretariat. Precisely what entity will employ that person, or where he or she will be based, is not clear. 

This is a classic chicken-and-egg situation, but with the clock running down. People often decry the slowness and conservatism of UN diplomacy. Yet the criticism often overlooks the difficulty and complexity of multi-lateral diplomacy. The 130 states who are either a Party to or have signed the Treaty, each in a close dialogue with their capital cities, are trying to simultaneously debate in several languages a set of interlinked problems. Decisions take a long time and have to be based upon compromise. 

Hopefully the looming deadline of the first full CSP will concentrate minds enough to cause delegations to untangle this web and be able to decide upon how the ATT Secretariat will function, as well as adopt effective Rules of Procedure, financial rules and strong reporting templates.

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