Hurdles for Arms Trade Treaty Underscored

Farrah Zughni

U.S. officials last month emphasized the need for an arms trade treaty (ATT) while acknowledging its possible limitations and the obstacles to agreement on the pact, which is to be negotiated July 2-27 at the United Nations.

The officials made their comments April 16 at a forum convened by the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) at the forum challenged the U.S. approach to the treaty, saying it did not go far enough in holding governments accountable for sales of arms and ammunition to countries with poor human rights records. The treaty would regulate international trade in conventional weapons.

In his keynote address to the Stimson Center gathering, Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman said that “providing defense equipment to reliable partners in a responsible manner actually enhances security, stability, and promotion of the rule of law.”

He argued that a successful treaty would compel countries without adequate export controls to improve their national systems, but he cautioned that even a robust treaty would “not fundamentally change the nature of international politics nor can it by itself bring an end to the festering international and civil conflicts around the world.”

Countryman also spoke about U.S. policy on some of the more contentious issues surrounding an ATT, including whether ammunition should be included within its scope. Although the United States already licenses its own import and export of ammunition, he said that the Obama administration had resisted incorporating ammunition because the logistics of monitoring end use through the ATT would be “hugely impractical.”

“We have asked our international partners, who proposed this inclusion, to lay out some specific means where such a fungible and consumable commodity could effectively and practically be accounted for,” said Countryman, adding that he was skeptical that a workable proposal for addressing ammunition through an ATT was at hand. Countryman gave a similar response in his interview with Arms Control Today (see page 21).

Echoing criticisms from countries and other NGOs in favor of regulating ammunition, Paul O’Brien, vice president for policy and campaigns at Oxfam America, said that failure to address ammunition adequately would mean the treaty would bring little improvement to countries “already awash in firearms.” More than 100 countries, including Australia, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, have expressed strong support for the inclusion of ammunition within the treaty’s scope, according to a tabulation by the NGOs Control Arms Alliance and Reaching Critical Will.

Speaking on the same panel as O’Brien, Ann Ganzer, director of the Office of Conventional Arms Threat Reduction at the Department of State, said the United States supports the inclusion of small arms and light weapons in the treaty. Only four countries—China, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Iran—have publicly objected to this proposal, according to the NGO tabulation.

On the issue of ammunition, Ganzer added, “We do not have a problem with the regulation of ammunition. The United States licenses the manufacturing, import, and export of ammunition. The issue comes in with some of the other requirements of the treaty—reporting requirements.” According to experts familiar with the ATT negotiations, her comments suggest a possible shift in the U.S. position that could help open the way to agreement on the issue.

Countryman and Ganzer emphasized that, in order to gain U.S. approval, an ATT should only spell out principles for implementing effective arms export control but not limit a country’s ultimate authority to proceed with a sale, even if the recipient had a poor human rights record.

In explaining this position, Ganzer said that “the question of who is violating human rights…is not always as straightforward as it seems.” She also said that a country’s own citizens, as well as the international community, could still challenge a government’s sales on humanitarian grounds.

O’Brien countered that some proposals for the treaty language, which ask only that countries “take into account” an arms recipient’s human rights record when evaluating a possible sale, were too weak and “like asking Coca-Cola to take into account…that people have a sweet tooth.” By setting low standards for countries, O’Brien argued, the treaty makes it more difficult to hold governments accountable in a meaningful way.

When questioned on this point, Ganzer twice conceded that the “language in the [ATT] chairman’s paper is rather weak” and said U.S. negotiators have talked to other countries about ways to strengthen it. ATT Committee Chairman Roberto García Moritán of Argentina has produced a draft text during preparatory committee meetings, but delegates have not yet agreed on an official draft treaty text.

Ganzer said that although there was concern over “the treaty not being strong enough to make a difference,” the United States would not sign on to an agreement “that was not strong in terms of demanding export controls and national decisions made at a sufficiently senior level that the government has to take responsibility for those arms transfers.”

Ganzer admitted that if passed, the ATT was unlikely to alter sales to countries such as Syria, which has violently suppressed popular uprisings for more than a year, if an exporter chose to go ahead, as Russia has done in recent months.

“All I can tell you about that specific situation is that Russia has a very good export control system…. Were an arms trade treaty in place, I don’t know that it would change Russia’s sovereign decision; it is their decision to make,” she said.

Although many in the international community maintain that the ATT might not go far enough to protect human rights, Countryman said countries that are already experiencing difficulty purchasing weapons because of poor human rights records “will not be eager” to see a treaty that codifies human rights concerns as criteria for sales.

Countryman also said that although he did not believe the ATT would put an onerous financial burden on countries, he did expect the subject of implementation costs to come up in future discussions.

To address these and other concerns, the United States has been contacting key countries in preparation for the July negotiations, Ganzer said. She said the United States was making a particular effort to talk with the 20 countries that abstained from voting on UN General Assembly Resolution 64/48, the mandate under which the July conference will be convened.