26 October 2009 - Third Edition

Editorial: Closing the gaps
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will

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As First Committee headed into its thematic debates on issues not related to weapons of mass destruction, a few delegations highlighted the need for a revival of conventional weapons issues, similar that which has been given to nuclear disarmament.

The need for such a revival was demonstrated throughout the debate on conventional weapons, wherein delegations repeated their standard positions on cluster munitions and anti-personnel mines, lamented the same lack of progress on implementing the UN Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons, and called for the same developments they have been requesting for years—stricter controls on the arms trade, increased financial and technical assistance to curb the illicit proliferation in conventional arms, and increased transparency on arms production and holdings and military expenditure, among other things.

In reality, however, the nuclear disarmament agenda is also no further ahead than it was a year ago. While nearly all delegations addressing First Committee this year called for a nuclear weapon free world, the policies of nuclear weapon states have not yet changed, nor have the resolutions concerning nuclear disarmament been altered to make full use of the supposed “revitalization” of the issue.

On the other hand, while much of the conventional weapons agenda continues to languish—a victim of polarised positions pitting concepts of self-defence and territorial integrity against the reduction of armed violence, illicit gun trading, and violations of international humanitarian law—there is a new resolution this year, which, if adopted, will establish the process to negotiate an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). That said, a strong treaty is still far from assured.

Neither the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) nor the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on the ATT actually agreed to any items generally considered requisite for negotiation: 1) identify problems to be solve; 2) identify means by which to solve them; 3) commit to solving the problem; and 4) agree to a formal negotiating process.

The 2008 GGE reached agreement in some form on the first two. Specifically related to the first element, it agreed to language recognizing “that the weapons being traded in the illicit market can be used for terrorist acts, organized crime and other criminal activities.” While dealing with such issues would be a worthy effort in its own right, it falls far short of the goals articulated by civil society and many states, which include, inter alia, applying international humanitarian and human rights standards to arms transfer decisions. Beyond dealing with problems associated with illicit acquisition of arms, proponents of the treaty are also interested in dealing more broadly with problems related to armed conflict. Such goals and objectives seem crucial for an effective ATT. 

Related to the second element, the GGE recognized the need for states to uphold the highest export control standards. The expert group, however, did not come to any agreement on what the scope of such controls might be—i.e. what types of weapons would be regulated, what sort of parameters might apply, or even whether it would be the goal of negotiations to agree to such standards. 

As for the OEWG, after two sessions it was unable to make further progress on refining or elaborating the first two elements. Most notably, it did come to agreement on the third element, in its expression of support “that international action should be taken to address the problem.”1 This opened the way for the now-tabled resolution to establish the formal commencement of negotiations.

However, one must consider what an ATT would look like if it were negotiated on the basis of the present consensus. The key question is, would such a treaty serve the aspirations of those who have desired it most? 

This a potential question for all items on the disarmament and international security agenda today. On what basis can the international community truly make progress in preventing the proliferation—illicit or otherwise dangerous—of any weapons, conventional or of mass destruction? How would it reach consensus, from this starting point, on eliminating any of these weapons or reducing the amount of money spent on them?

During the week, Burkina Faso’s delegation argued that it is vital to develop new security doctrines that are not based on the old ones; to cooperate and act sustainably; to take measures to put a decisive end to chronic conflicts that are the main incentives for acquiring arms; and to eliminate sources of instability throughout the world, including the growing gap between rich and poor. While such a world would certainly lend itself to one where consensus would be less elusive on matters of disarmament and arms control, these cannot be treated as preconditions for any relevant negotiations, agreements, commitments, or initiatives.

The international community must work within the world it has, now, to reduce military spending, control the arms trade and proliferation, and eliminate weapons. This in turn will help foster regional and international stability, lessen the strategic and economic gaps between countries, and consolidate the concept of self-defence with those of human rights and international humanitarian law.

1. See Michael Spies, “Towards a Negotiating Mandate for an Arms Trade Treaty,” Disarmament Diplomacy, Issue No. 91, Summer 2009. This analysis of the ATT process builds upon that piece.

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