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ATT Monitor, Vol. 10, No. 2

A turn to substance? Yes please.
12 September 2017


Allison Pytlak

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During the general debate a handful of states described the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) as moving into a new phase, making a “turn to substance”. In this vein, many participants emphasised the importance of implementation, expressing the sentiment that it would now be easier to move forward with substantive discussions in this area following the establishment of several key mechanisms and structures over the last year.

Civil society has been calling for greater discussion of substantive matters during ATT meetings for the past two years. In our view, the focus of recent meetings on procedural matters has been necessary to some extent, but has possibly also been used as a way to avoid more robust discussion of challenging issues, particularly in relation to so-called transfers of concern. We have been told that ATT conferences of states parties are not the appropriate space to discuss such things—to which we’ve replied, if not here, then where?

In her statement to the conference, Radhya al-Mutawakel from Mwatana Organization for Human Rights painted a painfully accurate picture of what is happening to her country of Yemen as a result of conflict. She called for an end to arms transfers to all parties of that conflict. “Two million people are internally displaced, of which more than a million are children. The health system is in freefall. Cholera has killed more than 2,000 Yemenis and half a million more are infected, making it the worst cholera epidemic in modern history.” Describing the violence and destruction in Yemen and other countries, Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), warned that there is “a gap between promise and implementation, between the law and respect for the law,” which results in human suffering. “The ATT is a blueprint for action by all States,” he noted, but emphasised that the challenge is to “turn words into deeds” in order to “protect communities from the worst brutalities of war.”

The calls for more substantive discussion by states parties, particularly on implementation, are very welcome, but we urge states to meet them with equally substantive action outside the conference room—and to do so immediately.

ATT implementation means different things to different states, as was well articulated during the general debate. For some it is about developing national control systems for the first time, or passing new laws that will incorporate ATT obligations, sometimes in context of competing national priorities. It may also be about cultivating expertise where there is none, or providing training and information on less familiar aspects of the treaty, such as the criterion on gender-based violence. It includes establishing information-sharing mechanisms, or stronger border controls. Any substantive discussion about implementation should include these aspects—provided that doing so does not become a way to avoid other types of substantive issues that may touch on the behaviour of countries that are already well-equipped to implement the ATT.

On behalf of twelve states, Mexico delivered a proposal at the end of Monday’s session calling for an end to arms transfers to Venezuela until peace is restored. It stated that this would be in line with obligations under articles 6 and 7 of the ATT. This signifies the kind of positive and substantive action that can make a difference on the ground. Having a similar outcome from this conference on the transfers that facilitate the bloodshed in Yemen is strongly encouraged, as are actions that translate the Mexican proposal into tangible actions. Ceasing arms transfers is one step; verifying, monitoring, and reporting on it transparently are others.

This is not a new message from civil society, but it continues to be a relevant and increasingly urgent one. As many countries stated today, the potential benefits of the ATT are manifold and go beyond the obvious. For example, the relationship between stronger arms control and development, such as through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), was reinforced by many governments during the general debate and will be addressed in greater depth at this conference. Also noted was the Treaty’s potential to reduce crime, human suffering, and gender-based violence. Sweden said that the ATT could be a “game changer” but for that to happen, all must work together to fully implement it. Ms. Izumi Nakamitsu, UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, said the ATT is part of the broader disarmament architecture and is thus part of the UN Secretary-General’s vision of “disarmament that saves lives”. In order for the ATT to live up to such expectations, states parties cannot continue to put off the challenging discussions any longer. It’s time to confront those that continue to profits ahead of people and demand real change.

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