ATT Monitor, Vol. 10, No. 1

Editorial: Is the Arms Trade Treaty saving lives?
11 September 2017

Allison Pytlak

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Four years have passed since the Arms Trade Treaty’s (ATT) adoption in 2013. Those of who us were there that day celebrated a long-fought diplomatic achievement brought about through determination, collaboration, and vision. The rapid entry-into-force shortly afterward compounded the feeling that while perhaps imperfect, this would be a treaty that could really achieve something. This would be a treaty that would overcome the negative comments of its detractors. Most significant, this would be a treaty that would actually save lives.

Has it?

This is the single most important question that states must ask themselves as they convene for the Third Conference of States Parties (CSP3) this week. This is the real yardstick against which the effectiveness of the ATT should be measured.

Unfortunately, evidence seems to suggest that no, this treaty has not lived up to its principles and objectives, in particular of reducing human suffering and saving lives. A few states have reversed or are reviewing questionable policies—which is to be commended—but they are a small group. There are otherwise many signs of a “business as usual” approach to arms transfers, even in the face of vociferous efforts of civil society and media to draw attention to the consequences of such actions.

The most-cited example is the ongoing transfers and license approvals to Saudi Arabia by a handful of ATT states parties and signatories, the weapons from which are being used both domestically and in the conflict in Yemen. In both locations, there is ample credible evidence indicating a risk of the arms in question being used to violate human rights. There is also evidence of ongoing transfers into war torn South Sudan from ATT signatories and increased sales to some Asian states that have concerning levels of armed violence. Also disturbing is that states parties that are not making these transfers themselves are not asking any questions, either. They equally have a responsibility to protect and uphold the ATT. They must do much more to address behaviour that violates the Treaty or contradicts its goals and objectives.

Of course, implementing the ATT in a way that will reduce human suffering does not happen with the wave of a magic wand. The decisions that are required by articles 6 and 7 of the Treaty need other very practical things to exist first, some of which require time and resources. Here there has been a lot of positive activity since the Treaty’s entry-into-force. Trainings, seminars, writing of manuals, guides, and model legislation are excellent examples that we hope to hear more about in national statements at this CSP. The establishment of the Voluntary Trust Fund (VTF) and its operationalisation since last year will hopefully propel new projects to fruition.

But for some states parties, ATT obligations already largely match their existing national policies or regional obligations, as many have stated publicly for years. Time is not an excuse. The business as usual approach is unacceptable and hypocritical to the sentiments that these countries express in their conference room statements.

There is a concern that, as happened during CSP2, the thematic discussion at this conference will overlook matters of substance and emphasise matters of process. This would mean not adequately addressing why some states are already falling behind on reporting requirements, as one example, or why some have elected to keep their reports private. It would mean not discussing compliance issues, in the context of implementation, and only focusing on procedural issues such as the future status of the working group on implementation. This is not to say that procedural decisions are not important—they are the building blocks on which the ATT functions. What is problematic is to focus solely on these aspects and kick the harder topics down the road for another day. The integrity and credibility of the ATT erodes further each day that this happens.

As CSP3 gets underway, we call on states to ask the question, is the ATT saving lives? Let’s have that as our guiding question—and top priority.

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