ATT Monitor, Vol. 9, No. 3

Editorial: Rhetoric versus reality
24 August 2016

Ray Acheson 

Across issue areas, even just within the disarmament sphere, the framing of “rhetoric versus reality” is all too common. Words do not match up to actions. Reality around the world does not mirror the merry picture painted within the various conference rooms in which give states their official statements. The interventions of the United Kingdom, United States, and Canada—an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) state party, a signatory, and an aspirant—provided an all-too-excellent example of this phenomenon during Tuesday’s general debate.

In its statement, the UK delegation proclaimed it’s “unerring commitment” to the ATT. It also called on other states to be ready to “redress practices that fall short of the Treaty’s ideals” and to “adjust their approaches” to accept criticism “as appropriate”.

Yet, the UK does not appear willing to either accept criticism or redress its practices. It has thus far refused to engage at CSP2 with the mainstream media and civil society critique of its arms exports to Saudi Arabia during its bloody bombardment of Yemen. The UK government has repeatedly claimed that its sales to Saudi Arabia meet its arms exports regulations, even though it has been found by eminent legal scholars to be violating domestic, regional, and international law. One member of the defence committee insisted that the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is trying to avoid hitting civilians. “They are doing their level best to sort it out,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “I reckon they have made some mistakes and have breached in the past, but I can tell you this ... things have been really tightened up.”

In reality, the bombing in populated areas in Yemen is continuing to result in civilian casualties and the destruction of civilian destruction, leading to death, injury, mass displacement, and extreme food insecurity. Médecins Sans Frontières just announced that it will have to withdraw from six hospitals in northern Yemen after the fourth airstrike against one of its facilities in less than a year. Earlier this month, the coalition hit a potato crisp factory, killing at least 14 workers. As one humanitarian aid worker explained, “They target every place in Yemen and are killing innocent people. They don’t make exceptions, they target even schools and hospitals.”

This reality has also not stopped the United States, an ATT signatory, from continuing to supply billions of dollars worth of weapons to the Saudi coalition. The US, in its general debate intervention, quoted the Treaty and suggested it is acting in accordance with its principles. The US delegation also argued that all elements of the object and purpose of the ATT are mutually reinforcing.

In theory this could be true. But the practice of the UK and the US both indicate that states parties and signatories alike are at best interpreting their obligations under the Treaty in a manner inconsistent with all of the Treaty’s objects and purposes. Participating in the relentless bombing and bombardment in populated areas in Yemen does not contribute to peace, security, or stability; does not promote “responsible action” by states parties; and above all, does not reduce human suffering. In fact, it massively exacerbates it. 

Both the US and the UK highlighted the importance of Treaty universalisation. The UK suggested that on through “true universalization” will the ATT be able to address the challenge and impacts of the arms trade. Once again, however, the UK is undermining its own stated position. As Geoffrey Duke of South Sudan noted, “Authorisating arms transfers for use in Yemen is a dangerous precedent for the ATT. It even threatens universalization.”

States seeking to join the Treaty cannot possibly view its major proponents as sincere in the current environment. Many major state party exporters are selling weapons to Saudi Arabia and other countries engaged in human rights abuses at home or abroad. This behaviour risks stripping the Treaty of its credibility. Alternatively, states will join the Treaty recognising that they will never be held accountable for their arms transfers.

Canada delivered a hopeful intervention indicating its intention to ratify the Treaty once the relevant parliamentary and legislative procedures have been undertaken. This is a welcome development. Yet in advance of this, the Canadian government has watered down its arms export regulations and signed the export permits for its biggest arms deal in history—with Saudi Arabia. Even more recently, a Canadian-owned company shipped dozens of armoured personnel carriers to Libya through at least four different brokers, despite being confronted in 2014 by UN investigators who pointed out the sales violated an arms embargo. Concerns have also been raised about Canadian arms transfers to Nigeria, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, the Philippines, Thailand, and Turkey.

Whether a state party, a signatory, or an aspirant, it’s clear there are serious problems with ATT implementation. Wednesday’s discussions will focus on this issue, ahead of which the UK mentioned its working paper OP.1 to establish a working group of technical experts on ATT implementation. The group, according to the UK’s proposal, should decide itself when it would be public or private. Experts, particularly from industry, may be invited to private meetings.

Unfortunately, this proposal seems to seek to remove the opportunity to discuss Treaty violations from the public view and take such discussions into closed-door meetings that will likely exclude civil society other than arms manufacturers and dealers.

Focused discussions on implementation are necessary. But such deliberations must be public and informed by a wide range of interests, not just those profiting from arms sales.

It seems like there is a growing gap between rhetoric and reality in the ATT. We remain hopeful, as do Norway, Madagascar, Samoa, and many others, about its humanitarian potential. But to fulfill this potential, threats to the Treaty’s effectiveness and credibility must be confronted, challenged, and addressed.

As WILPF said in our intervention to the general debate, “We believe in the potential of international law to make a difference. Agreements like the ATT are important to confront the violence and conflict facilitated by the spread of weapons. We hope that states parties meeting this week shoulder their responsibilities, confront challenges that undermine the Treaty’s objectives, and advance peace, security, and human rights through their commitments and their actions.”

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