ATT Monitor, Vol. 9, No. 6

Editorial: Struggling for the soul of the ATT
26 August 2016

Ray Acheson

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When states and civil society and international organisations came together in 2006 to initiate a negotiation process for what would become the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the key motivation for many was to disrupt the relentless flows of weapons that perpetuate cycles of armed violence and armed conflict around the world. In part, this meant challenging those that facilitate war for economic gain, interrupting their seemingly unappeasable profiteering from the scourge of violent death and destruction. Ten years later, some of us find ourselves asking, did it make a difference? Will it ever? How do we use this tool to effect real change?

Asking this does not amount to lamenting wasted time or failed opportunities. It is also not meant to betray a sense of defeat—for no defeat is felt. Rather it is a signifier of continued determination and defiance—defiance of the belligerence with which the arms industry has continued to prosper at the expense of the misery of so many people in so many contexts. Defiance of those states that carry on as if nothing has changed, claiming commitment to an instrument that should have made some of their actions impossible while they treat the Treaty as something to provide a cloak of legitimacy for their illegal and morally reprehensible actions.

This week at the Second Conference of States Parties (CSP2), states failed to address the arms trade. They did adopt parameters for a Voluntary Trust Fund, as well as working groups on universality, reporting, and implementation. They endorsed and recommended the use of reporting templates (though did not resolve to make them public by obligation). They appointed a permanent head of the Secretariat, adopted the budget for 2017, decided on the dates for CSP3 (11–15 September 2017), and endorsed Finland as president for CSP3 and Australia, Bulgaria, Guatemala, and Sierra Leone as vice-presidents.

These are important decisions that will help facilitate the work of the ATT. But amidst these administrative matters, there was not a single statement from governments regarding current practice and policy in terms of implementing the Treaty. A few states hinted at their displeasure with the ongoing situation outside the conference room, but none cited particular examples or made suggestions to address this.

Two helpful suggestions did come from Peru: 1) that initial and annual ATT reports “incorporate information regarding the elements on which arms exporting countries have based their assessment of the possibility of an overriding risk of violations or abuses of the international humanitarian law and of human rights,” and 2) that the ATT Secretariat coordinate with the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights on its report on the impact of arms transfers on human rights. More such suggestions are needed to advance the ATT’s possibility of effectiveness. Unfortunately, these suggestions were cut from the final report on Friday because some states felt it hadn’t been sufficiently discussed. This process of cutting a paragraph just “taking note” of these suggestions was described by the President as “good housekeeping”.

Some have argued that CSP2 was not the place to address “substance,” but this is also what we heard at CSP1 and throughout the CSP2 preparatory process. The expectation now seems to be that the working groups will deal with issues of substance. But it is not yet clear where or how often such bodies will meet, making it potentially difficult particularly for small delegations and civil society to engage. Fortunately, the implementation working group at least will be open and public—the UK’s attempts to established a closed group with invited arms dealers apparently didn’t fly in consultations. But concerns remain about how this body will relate to the CSPs or how it might respond to alleged violations of the Treaty.

Violations have certainly been alleged. At CSP2, civil society groups focused largely on the case of arms transfers from 17 states parties and two signatories to Saudi Arabia despite its repeated breaches of international humanitarian law and human rights law in Yemen. This is far from the only possible case of ATT violation. But it does provide what would appear to be a very good opportunity to hold states parties to account to their obligations and to shore up the Treaty’s credibility. Yet, as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights laments the lack of accountability and justice for civilians in Yemen, so do we lament the lack of accountability of those states and arms dealers profiting from the destruction of Yemen and many other countries.

“Civilians in Yemen ... continue to suffer, absent any form of accountability and justice, while those responsible for the violations and abuses against them enjoy impunity,” said the High Commissioner yesterday. “Such a manifestly, protractedly unjust situation must no longer be tolerated by the international community.” It must not. And yet, it is not only tolerated by the international community, but is actively facilitated by those that sell arms to those engaged in the bombing and bombardment in populated areas in Yemen.

As the US and Saudi Arabia hold peace talks on the conflict in Yemen, the US is preparing to ship billions of dollars of more weapons to Saudi Arabia, which would enable it to continue the war. The meeting between the US and Saudi Arabia on Thursday came on the heels of a meeting between the US and Russia on military cooperation in Syria in relation to bombing Daesh, even while Russia and the Syrian government are bombing Syrian cities and towns. Meanwhile, US arms dealers are actively positioning Russia “as a potent enemy that must be countered with a drastic increase in military spending by NATO countries,” informing their investors that they are relying on tensions between NATO and Russia to fuel business.

This snapshot of international relations and the arms trade presents a complex fabric of war profiteering at the extreme—brokering arms deals or peace deals or cooperative military arrangements with friends and foes in whichever configuration might bring the greatest value for money at any given point.

Amongst all the wheeling and dealing, of course, people die. Communities are destroyed. Countries crumble, destabilising regions and the world. All of which, the militarily powerful and the arms-rich countries say, requires more weapons, more violence.

The ATT should have been an instrument of opposition to this modus operandi. It still could be, if the states parties that view the Treaty as a legal and moral counterweight to those states and arms dealers that profit from death and destruction begin to use the ATT as a tool to combat and prevent the actions that undermine it. For the supply chains of the arms trade to be broken, said Sierra Leone on Thursday, all of the links need to be reformed. A good start would be developing mechanisms in the ATT process to confront and end the arms transfers that the Treaty was created to stop in the first place. 

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