Raising the Bar for Negotiations on an ATT

By Jo Adamson

As delegates filed away from the United Nations on the evening of July 27 at the end of the conference that had sought to conclude negotiations on an arms trade treaty (ATT), there was a palpable sense of disappointment among diplomats and civil society participants that we had fallen at the last hurdle and failed to adopt an ATT. In a cruel irony, the magnificent opening ceremony of the London Olympics was being broadcast in the UN as the hours ticked down on our conference. Our marathon gathering was over, as others were about to begin theirs.

I do not believe that we left empty-handed—far from it. In just a few weeks, we had produced a draft treaty that should forever raise the standards to be applied to global arms exports. The draft treaty was not adopted, but more than 90 countries, including the United Kingdom, declared that the draft “has the overwhelming support of the international community as a base for carrying forward our work.” That group of key supporters of the ATT draft said, “We are disappointed, but we are not discouraged.”

The July 26 working paper issued by Roberto García Moritán, the conference president, provides a sense of what we accomplished and where we are heading next. The draft text includes

• an overall agreement to legally binding global regulation of the international arms trade;

• for the first time, legally binding controls on the export of small arms and light weapons, the weapons that fuel conflicts around the world on a daily basis;

• controls, including a risk assessment, on proposed exports of ammunition and parts and components;

• strict criteria to be applied before arms exports are approved, covering international humanitarian law, human rights, corruption, gender-based violence, and the impact on sustainable development, as well as the potential impact on international and regional security. In the first week, no one thought we could keep even sustainable development in the draft. Yet, by the final week, we did and agreed to even more;

• the creation of national export control structures and systems where none exist at present, forming a new global community of export control practitioners; and

• cooperation and assistance to help with implementation in those countries that lack the capacity to set up such systems on their own.

This adds up to a lot. It reflects many of the standards already in place in some of the most stringent export control systems, such as in the European Union and the United States.

We can always do better, but to have produced such a text under time pressure and with widely varying levels of ambition in the room should be acknowledged as an achievement—short of the ultimate goal, for the time being, but still beyond the expectations of the many participants and observers who thought it could not be done.

How the diplomatic conference worked together was as important as what it did. Many people commented throughout the month that only the skeptics’ voices were being heard. A person could be forgiven for such thoughts if he or she followed only the plenary sessions or the late-night sessions in the Indonesian Lounge, where García Moritán listened patiently to comments on his various drafts.

Joint Statement on an Arms Trade Treaty

On July 27, Mexico submitted the following statement to Roberto García Moritán, the president of the arms trade treaty negotiating conference:

Mr. President,

I am speaking on behalf of Albania, Argentina, Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, the CARICOM member states (Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Burundi, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Saint Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago), Chile, Colombia, Congo, Costa Rica, Croatia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, El Salvador, the European Union and its Member States (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom), Fiji, Gabon, Ghana, Guatemala, Iceland, Israel, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Liberia, Liechtenstein, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Malawi, Mexico, Montenegro, Morocco, New Zealand, Niger, Nigeria, Norway, Palau, Paraguay, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Philippines, Republic of Korea, Samoa, Serbia, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Switzerland, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey, Uganda, Uruguay, Vanuatu.

We would like to thank you for your leadership and for your tireless efforts in leading this Diplomatic Conference.

We came to New York a month ago to achieve a strong and robust Arms Trade Treaty. We had expected to adopt such a draft Treaty today.

We believe we were very close to reaching our goals. We are disappointed this process has not come to a successful conclusion today. We are disappointed, but we are not discouraged.

Compromises have had to be made, but overall the text you presented yesterday has the overwhelming support of the international community as a base for carrying forward our work.

In order to make this Treaty a reality, additional work and efforts are needed.

We had believed that this would have been possible with extra work today and only very reluctantly now see that this is not possible.


Mr. President,

We call on you to report to the General Assembly on the progress we made, so that we can finalize our work.

We are determined to secure an Arms Trade Treaty as soon as possible. One that would bring about a safer world for the sake of all humanity.

Thank you.

Away from the microphones, however, in the coffee shops and in smaller rooms, groups of countries from different regions were pushing each other to accept a stronger text and working together to turn aspirations into treaty language. In that way, many different countries became more invested in the process. The conference began to forge the community that will implement the future ATT. This common drive for high standards, reinforced by more than 90 countries on the final day, was an accomplishment in itself in an institution where lowest-common denominator is the usual currency.

Yet, we did fail to adopt the treaty text by consensus on the final day. A number of countries asked for more time to work on the text. A number of days had been lost to procedural wrangling in the first week of the conference, and despite many nights and weekends spent at the UN, we all struggled to catch up.

It was not for lack of encouragement by García Moritán, who pushed himself as hard as he pushed delegates. It was not for lack of effort by many delegations and by civil society. It was not for lack of support from our politicians. I spoke at least daily to my ministers in London, who always wanted to know how negotiations were progressing and what they could do to help delegates in New York to clinch the strongest possible treaty. I was fortunate to have two ministers come to New York in July, at one of the busiest times of the year, before London played host to the Olympics.

In the end, the request for more time meant that we could not achieve consensus. My biggest regret is that the international community has not yet been able to respond to the victims of conflict, to the families of those killed in conflict, with a strong treaty. Yet, this is an ATT postponed, not an ATT abandoned.

That brings me to what we should do next to capitalize on the momentum created over six years in the UN and many more years by civil society campaigners.

The United Kingdom was one of seven countries, the “co-authors,” that launched the ATT process at the UN in 2006, building on work by civil society since the early 1990s. The British approach always has been that we must aim for a treaty that is strong and enjoys the broadest possible participation, a message repeated by Foreign Secretary William Hague in his statement on July 28, the day after the conference ended.

There will be calls to go for the highest standards, irrespective of whether the major arms exporters are in or out. It is much easier to reach agreement with those who agree with you in the first place. There can be no shortcuts. A strong treaty on paper is not enough to achieve the global reach we seek. For an ATT to make the most impact on the ground, treaty supporters must continue to press all the arms exporters to join a strong treaty.

This is another reason why the British government is taking some time to reflect on the best course of action to bring a strong treaty home within the UN system. This pause is not because we do not sense the urgency, are not committed to the project, or do not have a plan. It is to allow time to talk to partners and think about the optimal way to navigate the next few months at the UN and lay the foundation for effective implementation.

After six years of work and an intensive month of negotiations in July, ATT supporters have achieved a great deal and have nearly reached our goal. The British team is determined to get an ATT across the finish line soon and in good shape. We know that the next step will be for García Moritán’s report, which included his draft treaty of July 26, to be sent to the UN General Assembly, which begins its session in September. It is likely that the UN General Assembly First Committee will take up the ATT issue.

It is premature to say at this time what the United Kingdom’s approach will be. I can say that if our work in July is any indication, then I foresee some sleepless nights for the British team and other delegations and persistent lobbying for the highest-possible standards. Some of our work may be invisible—negotiations need space to produce results—but we will not relent in the quest to make the world a safer place through an effective and robust ATT. ACT


Jo Adamson was head of the British delegation to the July 2012 arms trade treaty diplomatic conference at the United Nations and is the United Kingdom’s permanent representative to the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the British government.