States Continue Work on Arms Trade Treaty

Jeff Abramson

In a recent meeting that many governments and nongovernmental organizations called a success, states grappled with some of the issues that lie at the heart of the effort to create a legally binding arms trade treaty (ATT).

During the Feb. 28-March 4 preparatory committee meeting at the United Nations, countries dealt with the question of what types of weapons and transfers might be included in a future accord, as well as the criteria that countries should use in deciding whether to make a particular arms deal. Under his own authority, the meeting’s chairman, Roberto García Moritán of Argentina, presented draft papers without requiring consensus, as he had done when countries met last July. (See ACT, September 2010.)

Despite disagreement on specific topics by major arms suppliers and recipients, that approach has kept controversial items in the discussion. Final decisions are unlikely to be made before states meet in 2012 for a four-week UN conference that will aim to “elaborate a legally binding instrument.” That meeting, according to the UN General Assembly resolution authorizing it, will operate “on the basis of consensus.”

In the chairman’s papers, circulated before the recent meeting and revised on March 3, conventional weapons were defined rather broadly and included small arms, light weapons, and ammunition. The United States, while supporting the inclusion of small arms and light weapons, rejected ammunition. China argued for an even more limited scope, saying that a future ATT at first should include only those weapons defined in the seven categories of the 20-year-old UN Register of Conventional Arms. (See ACT, November 2010.)

Whether that register serves as a good model for the treaty has long been a point of debate. The voluntary register lists seven categories of major conventional weapons, such as tanks, combat aircraft, and warships. It does not include small arms and lights weapons as a core category, despite the efforts of many states-parties to change it to do so. (See ACT, September 2009.) Ammunition is also not an official category.

García Moritán’s March 3 draft strengthened the language on criteria, removing earlier draft terms such as “take into consideration.” Instead, the paper said states “shall apply criteria” and “shall not authorize a transfer of conventional arms if there is a substantial risk” that those weapons would be “used to commit or facilitate serious violations of” international humanitarian law or human rights law. The draft also references UN Security Council resolutions, terrorist acts, genocide, crimes against humanity, socioeconomic development, and other topics as criteria to be used in the treaty.

In a March 4 statement, Alistair Burt, parliamentary undersecretary of state in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, said, “This week real progress was made on developing the shape and content” of the ATT. Baffour Amoa, a spokesman for the international nongovernmental Control Arms coalition, praised the meeting for its “big step” toward a “robust” pact. “Despite serious efforts by some states to derail or weaken the process, we are now beginning to see a principled treaty take shape,” he said.

The UN process continues with another preparatory meeting July 11-15. How to implement an ATT will be a central topic at that gathering.