U.S. Supports Arms Trade Treaty Process

Jeff Abramson

The United States last month pledged its support for talks on a legally binding instrument to regulate the global trade of conventional arms, breaking with previous U.S. votes against the United Nations-led process. UN member states are now expected to approve a schedule that could see an arms trade treaty (ATT) negotiated in 2012.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in an Oct. 14 statement that “the Arms Trade Treaty initiative presents us with the opportunity to promote the same high standards for the entire international community that the United States and other responsible arms exporters already have in place to ensure that weaponry is transferred for legitimate purposes.” Her statement marked a change in U.S. policy from the Bush administration, which opposed resolutions on the ATT process in 2006 and 2008. (See ACT, December 2008.)

The breakthrough occurred as the UN First Committee considered a draft resolution that would convert the four remaining sessions of an open-ended working group into preparatory committee meetings leading up to the UN Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty in 2012. The resolution, approved Oct. 30, states that the conference will be undertaken “on the basis of consensus,” a controversial and key demand made by the United States.

Supporters of a consensus process argue that it is necessary to promote universal standards. In her brief statement, Clinton said that “[c]onsensus is needed to ensure the widest possible support for the Treaty and to avoid loopholes in the Treaty that can be exploited by those wishing to export arms irresponsibly.” Last year, U.S. officials indicated to Arms Control Today that the United States would likely have supported the 2008 resolution if it had included a consensus provision. Observers suggest that U.S. leaders also do not want a treaty to proceed without them, as happened recently with the Convention on Cluster Munitions. (See ACT, December 2008.)

Detractors of the consensus requirement contend that it gives individual countries the ability to stall the process or weaken the final document.

The United States is the world’s top arms exporter and maintains what Clinton called the “gold standard” of export controls on arms transfers. ATT advocates have long been seeking Washington’s involvement in the treaty process.

British Foreign Minister David Miliband, whose country has been an ATT leader, welcomed Clinton’s announcement. In an Oct. 15 statement, he said, “For many years we have sought an active U.S. partner in the drive for a strong Arms Trade Treaty. Now for the first time, we have one.”

With U.S. opposition removed, some observers had wondered whether other major arms-trading countries that had previously abstained would be forced to vote either for or against the treaty process. However, China, India, Pakistan, and Russia again abstained. Those countries participated in last year’s group of governmental experts meetings but abstained in UN First Committee and General Assembly votes. In total, 153 states voted for the resolution, 19 abstained, and Zimbabwe voted against it.

The resolution was offered by Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan, Kenya, and the United Kingdom. Committee recommendations are typically referred to and later approved by the entire General Assembly.

In 2006 the General Assembly passed Resolution 61/89, entitled “Toward an Arms Trade Treaty: Establishing Common International Standards for the Import, Export and Transfer of Conventional Arms.” The resolution led to the submission of views from approximately 100 states on the feasibility and parameters of a treaty. It also led to the establishment of a group of governmental experts. The United States decided at the last minute to participate in the group. (See ACT, March 2008.)

In December 2008, the General Assembly passed Resolution 63/240 establishing an open-ended working group to meet for six one-week sessions from 2009 to 2011. In contrast to a group of governmental experts, which is closed to the public and limited to invited experts, an open-ended working group conducts public debate that is open to all member states.

This year, the open-ended working group met March 2-6 and July 13-17 in New York. Far from resolving all issues, the group reported that the meetings had “allowed for constructive, in-depth, and extensive discussion on the elements regarding objectives, goals, scope, parameters and other aspects where consensus could be developed for their inclusion in a possible treaty.”