ATT Monitor, Vol. 10, No. 6

Sliding into norm erosion
18 September 2017

Allison Pytlak

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At the start of the Third Conference of States Parties (CSP3) our editorial stressed that the credibility and life-saving potential of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is eroding rapidly as a result of the unwillingness of states parties to acknowledge the impact of certain arms transfers. This is a failure of both those who are conducting transfers that violate the Treaty’s provisions, as well as those who fail to call them to account. We, and the majority of civil society groups at CSP3, appealed repeatedly to states to use this conference as a space to consider the impact of such transfers in the cities and countries around the world that are being destroyed by bombs and bullets.

These calls were blatantly and unapologetically ignored. Over the course of the five days, references to the real world were scarce. We noted in the Thursday edition that only Costa Rica acknowledged the conflict in Yemen; only Chile said it shares the concerns of civil society regarding possible failures to implement articles 6 and 7 of the Treaty and transfers of weapons to zones of conflict; and only 12 states called for cessation of arms transfers to one country, Venezuela, due to current levels of state repression and human rights abuse. The Philippines took issue with Amnesty International’s criticism of arms transfers there by accusing the organisation of politicising the conference.

The final day of the CSP was no different. As a lot of time was given to procedural and structural matters, such as the establishment of a presidency troika, Twitter lit up with ironic but sad reminders to conference delegates that firearms kill 20 people every hour. By this estimate, 800 were killed across the working hours of CSP3—and that’s only from firearms.

Once again, the real world impact of arms transfers being made by ATT states parties and signatories was swept under the carpet. More vigour was shown toward discussing budgets and meeting locations than about stopping transfers that kill people.

The final day unexpectedly saw a protracted discussion break out at the last minute—but this was around what are ultimately issues of transparency and access. Mexico had noticed an amendment to the terms of reference for the working group on implementation that had not been thoroughly discussed, and also pointed out that amendments to documents were not made identifiable through tracked changes or other methods. The amendment, suggested by New Zealand, would have required states requesting to close a meeting provide an explanation about why they are doing so, and to submit that request with four weeks of notice—an improvement on the existing terms, and helpful for access and openness particularly to civil society. While Mexico was likely not in disagreement with the nature of this amendment, in principle, by questioning when, and how, this had been added it highlighted a point of process. Retaining the openness of working groups is an essential part of overall treaty transparency, as is safeguarding decision-making processes.

While we welcome the amendment suggested by New Zealand, and hope that it can be incorporated in the terms of reference of the working groups soon, we also think that the substance of arms transfers deserves at least as much attention as these issues of process and access.

We speak a lot in disarmament and arms control circles about the evolution of norms that will ultimately change behaviour. This is often identified as one of the benefits of agreements such as the ATT. In order for that to happen, implementation must be rigorous and without exception, particularly in a treaty’s infancy. Doing so provides credibility and consistency—the building blocks of normative change. In the case of the ATT, unless something changes radically, and soon, its aspirational norms will erode rather than evolve.

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