Progress Made at Arms Trade Treaty Meeting

Jeff Abramson

The first preparatory committee meeting on creating a legally binding arms trade treaty (ATT) succeeded in moving the UN process forward, but left many details to be worked out in coming years.

At the meeting, held July 12-23 at the United Nations, delegates discussed thorny issues, including what weapons might be covered by the treaty, what standards might apply in making export decisions, and how information might be shared, monitored and verified, but did not reach decisions on those points. Instead, facilitators from Australia, Egypt, and Trinidad and Tobago led informal discussions on these and other issues, producing summary papers that outlined a range of opinions and possibilities.

The meeting’s chair, Roberto García Moritán of Argentina, presented draft papers providing a skeleton of what elements might be included in a future treaty, as well as principles, goals, and objectives for it. García Moritán chaired the governmental group of experts, which concluded in 2008, and open-ended working group meetings in 2009 that preceded the preparatory committee. (See ACT, November 2009.)

U.S. delegation member Ann Ganzer, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for threat reduction, export controls, and negotiations, said in an Aug. 4 statement that the July meeting “made significant progress in discussing issues that must be addressed in any ATT. It also showed that much work remains to be done.” Many delegations made similar comments in the closing days of the meeting and afterward.

Which weapons to include in the treaty and whether to define them specifically or generally remain some of the key unresolved issues. As noted in the facilitator’s draft, “[A] large number of States supported inclusion of the seven categories of the UN Register of Conventional Arms,” which encompass tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-caliber artillery, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, and missiles and missile launchers.

There was less agreement on the inclusion of small arms and light weapons, a category Washington wants to include. Ganzer said, “[T]he ATT must cover all conventional weapons, from military small arms and light weapons up to nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.” The United States does not support including ammunition in the treaty, despite the importance many developing countries put on the need for doing so. A joint statement delivered July 21 on behalf of Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uruguay called for the inclusion of ammunition and recommended that “[a] general definition that includes all arms that are not of a nuclear, chemical or biological nature could provide the flexibility needed and avoid lengthy negotiations on specific definitions that can quickly become obsolete.”

The UN process continues in 2011 with meetings scheduled for Feb. 28-March 4 and July 11-15. In 2012 a short preparatory committee meeting on procedural matters is to take place before a four-week UN conference that will aim to “elaborate a legally binding instrument.” That meeting, according to the General Assembly resolution authorizing it, will operate “on the basis of consensus.” The decision last year to include this consensus clause was controversial.

Many states, including those skeptical in the past, actively participated in the July meeting. China, India, Iran, Russia, and Egypt (on behalf of the Arab Group) all made statements within the first days of the meeting, despite abstaining in the 2009 First Committee vote that established the current process.

With less than three weeks of official UN meetings set to take place prior to the 2012 conference, civil society members as well as states are planning to engage in efforts outside the established UN schedule. An intersessional meeting will be hosted by the University of Massachusetts Boston Sept. 28-30 to examine some issues in more detail, including scope, parameters, transparency, and implementation. Funded by Australia, Austria, and Luxembourg, the meeting is expected to draw government experts from more than 40 countries.