25 October 2010 - Third Edition

Editorial: A framework for what objectives?
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF

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During the thematic debate on disarmament machinery, Ambassador Skorpen of Norway noted, “The framework for deliberations and negotiations must be a function of the objectives we want to achieve.” While she was referring principally to the Conference on Disarmament and the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, her comment is also broadly applicable to other ongoing and future processes for disarmament and arms control. If such negotiation processes severely limit possible outcomes, create an imbalance among key players, prevent negotiations from beginning, or even undermine the ability of some actors to participate, it is clearly not a function of the objective. However, an immediate question arises in the context of any negotiating process or forum: what happens when different players have different objectives?

When it comes to the  arms trade treaty (ATT), objectives are still widely varied. The Swiss and Norwegian delegations, for example, outlined their comprehensive expectations for an ATT, which, when their positions are combined, would prevent violations of human rights and international humanitarian law; include as many weapon types, components, and technologies as possible; offer victim assistance and rehabilitation provisions; and take into account the sustainable economic and social development of the intended recipient state. At the same time, several other delegations limited their ATT-related comments exclusively to emphasizing that the treaty must uphold article 51 of the UN Charter, regarding a state’s right to self-defence against armed attacks. It is also unclear as of yet exactly where some of these states will draw red lines when it comes to the objectives of others, though their skepticism about some of the more robust objectives suggests that at least a few countries see the treaty as being potentially discriminatory, its application subject to political manipulation and double standards.

With this in mind, is the framework for negotiating an ATT—an open-ended process in the General Assembly conducted by consensus—sufficient to ensure that the objective of an effective and robust ATT is accomplished? Many countries have already expressed concern that the framework of the open-ended working group will result in a lowest-common denominator treaty; when the ATT negotiation process was established through General Assembly resolution 64/48 in 2009, delegation after delegation took the floor to outline their concerns with the consensus rule being included in the mandate.

And then there is the position of one of the ATT’s  leading promoters, the United Kingdom. The UK delegation, largely credited with achieving agreement among states for the 2009 resolution, emphasized in its statement last week that it views the treaty as a means to “benefit the defence industry,” noting that establishing common agreed standards for arms transfers “will help pave the way for increased industry collaboration and joint ventures.” How does this objective accord with those of states who see the treaty’s primary goal as being to limit human suffering and promote sustainable development across the globe? Can we expect all of the major weapon manufacturing and exporting states to view the purpose and design of an ATT the same way as the UK? Traditionally, major weapons producers have viewed arms sales and transfers as “instruments of foreign policy,” to exert influence and to strengthen alliances, among other things.1Will the major arms exporters seek to exert their influence over the outcome of the very treaty that could potentially limit their ability to exert such influence in the future?

These questions, of course, are also applicable to any potential process to negotiate a fissile material (cut-off) treaty. As tensions rise in conference room 4 over perceived objectives and positions of various states on a potential FM(C)T, the halls are abound with ideas for the negotiation of this treaty. Some have advocated that the treaty remain on the Conference on Disarmament (CD)’s agenda and that its members continue seeking consensus on a programme of work to commence substantive work. Others argue the treaty should be taken outside the CD framework and negotiated by the General Assembly, a group of like-minded states, or even just by the five recognized nuclear weapon states alone. However, the questions of “do any of these frameworks act as a function of the objectives for this treaty” and “whose objectives should be reflected in the framework” are as pertinent here as they are for the ATT. They will be equally relevant for any future negotiations on a nuclear weapons convention, a legally-binding marking and tracing instrument for small arms and light weapons, or an agreement on the use of outer space and relevant security or arms control matters. Unfortunately, either minimal attention is paid to these foundational questions when governments and civil society approach negotiations, or, as in the case of the ATT, the most powerful determine the negotiating process by exerting their influence over the establishment of the framework.

What can be done? Perhaps a more rigorous process is required for the establishment of negotiating frameworks—though as can be seen in the case of the CD, this can also result in infinite stalemate. In the absence of established guidelines on this subject, it would be useful for a few core objectives to be held at the heart of an negotiating process, upon which decisions regarding the framework for negotiations can be based.

For the ATT, the framework has been established and now it will be up to the entire international community to ensure that the treaty achieves these most fundamental objectives—for example, the increase of international peace and security—rather than those that protect the arms market for major producing countries or shelter governments that commit violations of international humanitarian law. The United Nations was established for the very purpose of increasing international peace and security; this objective is one that all states should be able to agree upon.

1. Global Arms Trade: Commerce in Advanced Military Technology and Weapons, Congress of the United States Office of Technology Assessment, OTA-ISC-460, June 1991.

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