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26 August 2015: Vol. 8, No. 3

Here’s the thing about transparency: it’s the least you can do
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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During the second day of CSP1, someone on Twitter was periodically sending out messages about deaths from gun violence and armed conflict that were occurring during the day’s meetings. There are countless examples because about 1500 people are killed every day from war, armed homicides, extra-judicial executions, and excessive use of force by state security forces. Thousands more are injured, and millions more forced to flee their homes. The weapons “regulated” by the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) are used to commit this violence. Its states parties are meant to come up with mechanisms to prevent this.

At this particular CSP, perhaps the most crucial decision to be made that could help prevent the ongoing mayhem and violence of the international arms trade has to do with reporting.

Each state party is mandated to submit an initial report of measures undertaken to implement the ATT, including national laws, national control lists, and other regulations and administrative measures. In addition, each state party must submit an annual report about authorised or actual exports and imports of the conventional arms covered by the Treaty. States parties are also encouraged to report on measures they have found effective in preventing diversion of transferred weapons.

Some states want to keep the arms trade in the shadows, where they can profit from the death and destruction of millions of lives, comfortably out of sight from public scrutiny or international pressure. These states point to the deficiencies in the ATT text to undermine the Treaty’s transparency mechanisms. For example, there is no stipulation in the Treaty text that these reports must be made public. The annual reports “may exclude commercially sensitive or national security information.” States only have to report on items covered by article 2(1) of the Treaty, which does not include ammunition, parts, or components. And the Treaty says states can report the same information they submit to the UN Register of Conventional Arms, which is a voluntary reporting mechanism.

Thus some states have come to claim that the UN Register is the basis for reporting; that reports should not be made public; that it is only obligatory to report on certain aspects of the Treaty; etc. The draft templates designed for the baseline and annual reports, in trying to compromise between those who want strong reporting and those who prefer effectively none at all, have fallen far short of what was expected and what is necessary.

In presenting the latest versions of the templates, the Swedish facilitator of the reporting working group admitted that the “flexibility”—i.e. the option to choose what and how to report on key items and practices—will nullify the value of having a standardised reporting form. It will make it difficult to compare policies, practices, and transfer decisions between counties. But, he argued, it helps to allow states worried about national security or commercial sensitivities to report in ways in which they are most comfortable.

Making states and industry comfortable about the transparency of the volume, value, type, and destination of their weapon sales is not the objective of the ATT. The objective of the Treaty, as stated very clearly in its text, is reducing human suffering; contributing to international and regional peace, security, and stability; and promoting cooperation, transparency, and responsible action.

All of these goals require transparency. Responsibility requires accountability, which means states must be clear, consistent, and open about their policies and practices. They must be held accountable to each other and to the world. As Portugal said during the general debate on Monday, the ATT is “based on the principles of good faith, cooperation, transparency, and accountability.” Without these, the ATT will not stop a single arms transfer or protect a single human life.

The United States, a signatory to the ATT and the biggest arms exporter in the world, said on Tuesday that the CSP must turn the Treaty “from mere words on the page into a reality that makes a difference around the world.” Claiming that it has “long implemented laws and practices that are fully consistent with ATT requirements,” the US delegation offered its assistance to other states wanting to establish laws, processes, control lists, and border controls necessary for the ATT’s implementation.

If the US has such strong export policies and practices, why have the majority of its weapons exports in recent years gone to the Middle East, a region wracked with war and crises? Why has it approved $46 billion in new agreements with Saudi Arabia, a country with a terrible human rights record that is currently engaged in bombing Yemen? Why has it resumed arms sales to Egypt? Why does it continue to provide weapons and military assistance to Israel? Why does it continue to sell military equipment to Iraq despite the security forces abandoning large amounts of the weaponry to ISIS? Why is it arming Syrian fighters in a civil war in which both sides are known to have committed atrocities?

Experts on the US arms trade have long criticised US arms export policy. Rachel Stohl of the Stimson Center has highlighted that the government’s latest policies, adopted in 2014, arguably “allow too much ambiguity, and allow national security interests to trump human rights.” William Hartung of the Center for International Policy has suggested the changes in policy are motivated by industry, explaining that the Commerce Department has been granted control over matters the State Deparatment used to control. The Commerce Department is interested in promoting arms sales, not vetting them against human rights concerns. Thus, Hartung argues, “it’s going to be easier for some countries to get arms without a license, and those countries will become hubs of smuggling, no doubt. So it’s going to be counter to even the narrow security interests of the United States, but it’s something industry has wanted for quite a while.”

To whom is the US government, and its arms industry, accountable? To whom are all the other arms exporters, and importers, accountable? To the countries to which they sell or buy? Or to the people whose lives these sales cost?

Life is the true cost of the arms trade. Public, consistent, and robust reporting is the bare minimum that states can do to reduce this cost. It is a decision they can make right now, at this Conference, to begin to translate the ATT “into a reality that makes a difference around the world.”

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