Can arms trade be controlled by a Treaty? - The UN ATT negotiations and the real world

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Wendela de Vries

After years of lobbying by NGO's, the United Nations decided to start negotiations for a global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The objective of this treaty is to create a legal mechanism to prevent 'unethical' arms trade. Arms should not be exported when there is a serious risk that they might be used in human rights violations, in war crimes, organised crime or terrorism. They should also not be sold to unstable regions, poor countries or corrupt regimes. Reading this, one cannot conclude anything else than that that this treaty is meant to end all arms trade. However, as is well known, international treaties should not be taken too seriously, especially not when they aim at soft goals like respect for peace and human rights. In the first place, clever diplomatic phrasing will leave lots of useful loopholes for a treaty not to be effective. In the second place, if a state does not is not live up to the treaty, there will be no consequenses. Unless, of course, it is a paria state already.

The best illustration of the limited result the ATT will have is the fact that many defense industries have no problem with it. Some are even in support of the ATT. A spokesman of the British Defence Manufacturers Association described the treaty as “a global benchmark in export control compliance. (…) It should not be viewed through the optic of a traditional disarmament or arms control instrument.” In his opinion, the ATT will be a kind of WTO-treaty for arms trade: Something that creates a level playing field for the defense industry and something, he probably hopes, that will restrict the competition with Chinese and Israeli firms.

That is not how the ATT is intended by the initiating NGO's, which include Oxfam and Amnesty International. They hope for an instrument that seriously stops the most extreme kinds of arms exports. These organisations are not against arms trade per se and will never start any report without stressing that every country has the right to defend itself (art. 51 of the UN Charter). Unfortunately this right is mostly overruling all other rights, like the right to education, health care and work.

Many peace groups are sceptical about the possibility to limit arms trade by a UN Treaty. Too many interests are at stake, not just economics but also military. In the worst case the UN Arms Trade Treaty will be used as a cover to hide nasty business. The twelve years of experience with the eight EU Criteria on Arms Export, which are based on the same humanitarian principles as the ATT, show that exports to countries such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Israel - to name just a few - are considered perfectly legal by governments under the EU arms export criteria. To make a legal case when a government exports to a country that should – in NGO opinion – not receive arms is nearly impossible. The deliberately vague formulation leaves the arms export criteria open to much political intepretation. They can fit any foreign policy, military or economic interest. The only way to stop certain exports is continued campaigning by peace and human rights organisations to raise moral indigation in the public opinion.

On a global level it is even more difficult to formulate acceptable criteria to which every country will subscribe. The negotiations for the ATT, started this year, should lead to a treaty in 2012. So far, there are still so many points on which countries differ that progress is slow. Just to name a few: What kind of weapons should fall under the Treaty? Should ammunition be included? Should corruption be included? (Corruption was left out of the EU common criteria on purpose. Apparently EU countries realised that arms trade cannot work without it.)

Even with all its many limitations, one thing the ATT might be able to reach is a tiny little step towards a arms trade control mechanism. It might also contribute to more transparency on arms trade, although this does not help, the Netherlands has probably the most transparent arms export policy in the world but is still the 5th arms exporter globally.

If a good treaty comes out, the best it will do is to set a standard for ethical arms export policy like the Universal Declaration for Human Rights did set a standard. From there on, the hard work starts to get the standard lived up to.

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