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ATT Monitor, Vol. 10, No. 4

Out of the shadows and into reality
14 September 2017


Allison Pytlak

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It’s no secret that the international arms trade is a full of secrets. Stories of corrupt brokers, forged documents, erratic supply chains, hidden cargo, and cash pay-offs are not just the stuff that films are made of—it’s the unfortunate reality of how many aspects of the arms trade operates. Bringing the arms trade “out of the shadows” was one of the motivating factors behind the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), in the hope that improved control of legal markets would prevent diversion to illicit ones.

The tool built into the ATT to achieve this objective is its reporting requirement. The original idea was that in lieu of a verification mechanism, regular and mandatory reporting would increase transparency, build trust, facilitate information sharing, and all of those important things. As the representative of Japan stated today, a good reporting system can build confidence amongst states, and thus help them to decrease military spending, freeing up resources for socioeconomic development.

All of this makes sense—but it only works if all states parties submit reports, do so publicly, and establish a way to utilise the information they provide.

During today’s session on transparency and reporting we heard that reporting rates for both initial and annual reports are largely disappointing. For example, only five of the 19 states meant to submit an initial report in the last reporting period did so. By the end of the second reporting period in May 2017, a total of 75 annual reports should have been submitted, but as of early June, only 31 had. Some are partially complete or ambiguous; not all use the format.

In some cases this is purely a matter of capacity, which is being addressed through initiatives like the ATT Baseline Assessment Project and various proposed initiatives of the working group on transparency and reporting. The suggested online reporting option could also assist in this.

A more strategic way to increase and maintain reporting rates over time, however, is to provide an incentive for completing them. No one wants to report for reporting’s sake alone—and it becomes futile if the information contained in the reports is not being utilised, whether for monitoring, or assisting through sharing of experience. Today, Argentina suggested cross-referencing and assessing reports submitted by other states to see if they contain any contradictory information. Switzerland likewise suggested cross-country comparisons of reports, including via a database. Mexico urged establishing a mechanism to assess national reports in order to draw a roadmap for future activities. These are proactive suggestions that could become a foundation for the type of information sharing and cooperation needed to ensure that states parties are complying with the Treaty and providing accurate information, and also to prevent diversion. Most of the measures to prevent diversion that states parties “shall” take under Article 11 refer to information sharing and transparency activities. This clearly a priority for both states and many others in their region, as was made evident today.

Public accessibility to reports and related resources strengthen the ATT and the way in which it is regarded. The possibility that the yet-to-be established database of national ATT focal points will be restricted to states parties is not only bizarre, but damaging to the Treaty’s credibility and success. In addition, it’s concerning that there seem to be more states making reports private. Liberia, Panama, and Senegal have done so with their annual reports. Burkina Faso, Cyprus, Mauritius, Nigeria, Senegal, and Togo did the same with their initial reports. When challenged by civil society, vague responses fell short. In one case, the state party—Senegal— later clarified that the report is public, but only to other states parties and possibly signatories. Sweden, which has withheld some information in its report, attempted to justify this by explaining it is acceptable to do so on the basis of “military secrecy” because the majority of that report is public.

Publicly accessible reporting cannot be a half measure. Transparency only builds confidence when everyone participates equally and fully. It has been said that a lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity­, a very dangerous combination for such a young treaty—not to mention for the arms trade at large, which is already accounting for so much death and destruction around the world.

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