10 July 2012, Vol. 5, No. 5

Editorial: Putting human security right where it belongs
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF

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States? Corporations? Or human beings? Which should the arms trade treaty (ATT) prioritize? For most of civil society—and many governments—there is one correct answer to this question. But some of the delegations participating in the negotiation process appear to have different opinions. By the end of the month, however, we will either have a treaty that has as its primary objective the prevention of human suffering, or we will not have a treaty worth the paper it’s printed on.

Monday’s plenary and open committee meeting on the preamble and principles of the treaty provided venues for the ongoing debate about the key objective of the future ATT. While the majority of delegations continued to call for a robust treaty that will make a real difference in the lives of people around the world, some delegations expressed other priorities. Some argued that the sovereignty of states is the most important principle for the treaty to uphold (e.g. Venezuela), while a few others argued that the treaty should work to increase the legitimacy of the arms trade (e.g. Germany).

These mark two positions that are incompatible with the pursuit of a treaty that seeks to prevent violations of human rights law, international humanitarian law, armed conflict, armed violence, gender-based violence, sexual violence, terrorism, organized crime, the use or threat of force, foreign occupation, repression of self-determination, overproduction of arms, and/or diversion to unauthorized end-users or the illicit market; or that seeks to facilitate international and regional peace, security, and stability, peaceful settlement of disputes, and/or socioeconomic development.

All governments participating in this conference hold at least some of the above objectives as vital to their interests in the negotiation of an ATT. Yet by prioritizing “state security” over human security or the profits of the arms industry over the lives and livelihoods of human beings, these governments in effect undermine all of these objectives. The only way to prevent arms from being employed as instruments of foreign occupation or as illicit goods, for example, is to ensure that humanitarian interests are at the forefront of the treaty’s principles, objectives, and criteria, and to match them with a robust scope and rigorous implementation mechanisms.

Similarly, one way to help stem the overproduction of arms is to ensure that there are strict criteria for their export, so that arms are not produced and sold without any compelling and legitimate purpose, and to prioritize socioeconomic development over the excessive use of resources for the production of weapons.

In relation to this last point, the UK delegation suggested that the preamble of the ATT include a reference to article 26 of the UN Charter. Citing agreement with the Egyptian delegation’s concerns with excessive military spending, the UK ambassador urged the preamble to call for the “the least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources.” This is an interesting suggestion coming from one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, which has yet to fulfill the mandate of article 26. But it does highlight one of the other key challenges for the ATT: to ensure that the treaty is applied equally in exporting and importing states.

The tension between importers and exporters has been high throughout the ATT negotiation process, but there is no inherent reason for double standards. Every state party must have an equal responsibility in fulfilling the objectives of the treaty. Iceland’s delegation highlighted this joint responsibility in relation specifically to gender-based violence, but it applies to all of the future treaty’s criteria. While different entities play different roles in the arms trade, all must be bound by a collective responsibility to uphold what must be the key objective of the treaty: the preservation of human security and the prevention of human suffering.

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