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– Frank Klotz
former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
Arms Trade Treaty Moves to UN Assembly
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Daryl G. Kimball

UN member states hammered out a new, compromise arms trade treaty (ATT) text after two intense weeks of final negotiations in New York March 18-28, but Iran, North Korea, and Syria blocked its adoption on the final day of the conference, leading a group of more than 90 countries, including the United States, to move the treaty to the General Assembly for approval.

Diplomats from states supporting the treaty said they expect the treaty to receive overwhelming support from the assembly. Approval at the conference would have required consensus.

In comments to reporters during a conference call late March 28, Thomas Countryman, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation and the head of the U.S. delegation to the conference, said his country “regrets that it was not possible today to reach consensus at this conference on an arms trade treaty.”

He said the treaty text is “meaningful” and “implementable” while “affirm[ing] the legitimacy of the international trade in conventional arms” and “not touch[ing] in any way upon the constitutional rights of American citizens” to possess firearms.

“We look forward” to the treaty being adopted by the UN General Assembly “in the very near future,” Countryman said.

Under discussion for more than six years, the treaty would, for the first time, establish common international standards that must be met before states authorize transfers of conventional weapons in eight major categories and exports of ammunition and weapons parts and components. The pact also requires regular, annual reporting on all arms transfers.

The treaty would require states to assess the potential for the transfer to be used to commit or facilitate “serious violations” of international humanitarian law and international human rights law or to commit or facilitate terrorism or organized crime. The states also must take into account the risk of serious acts of gender-based violence or acts of violence against women and children. If there is “an overriding risk of any of these negative consequences,” states would be required not to authorize the export.

The treaty also would prohibit transfers of arms or exports of ammunition or weapons parts and components if the state “has knowledge” that the transfer would be used in the commission of “genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians, or other war crimes.”

That prohibition, if in force today, would bar the ongoing supply of weapons and of parts and components to the Assad regime in Syria, according to several Western diplomats at the conference.

The treaty also requires that all states establish effective regulations on the export of ammunition and weapons parts and components. Advocates of this provision said such exports often allow conflicts to continue long after the original arms transfers have occurred. Several states including the United States had opposed the inclusion of ammunition in the treaty during the July 2012 negotiations on the pact. (See ACT, September 2012.)

Consensus Blocked

Building on the draft treaty text from last year’s unsuccessful July negotiating round, the president of the March conference, Peter Woolcott of Australia, choreographed the complex negotiations that produced three revised versions of the treaty text over the course of the two weeks.

On March 27, he presented his third and final version for approval. After 24 hours and further high-level lobbying among key capitals, Woolcott reconvened the conference with the hope of securing the adoption of the treaty. In a packed conference room, Woolcott asked if there were any clarifying statements before he proceeded to the adoption of the treaty text. The representatives from Iran, North Korea, and Syria asked to speak.

Mohammad Khazaee, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, said that “while the rights of arms-exporting states [are] well preserved in this text, the right of importing states to acquire and import arms for their security needs is subject to the discretionary judgment and subjective assessment of the exporting states.”

As a result, transfer of conventional weapons under this treaty would be “highly susceptible to politicization, manipulation, and discrimination,” Khazaee said.

The North Korean representative said the “draft is not well balanced. Some interests have been reflected more than others and some have been ignored.” He said North Korea would block consensus.

Syria’s UN ambassador, Bashar Ja’afari, said that “our national concerns were not taken into consideration” in part because the treaty does not expressly prohibit arms transfers to subnational groups. He said the treaty “can’t be accepted by my country.”

Russia’s envoy also expressed his country’s displeasure that the treaty text did not explicitly prohibit arms transfers to subnational groups and have provisions barring re-export. He said he would take the treaty back to Moscow for further study.

The objections from these states were not surprising to many diplomats and observers given that Iran and North Korea are currently under UN arms embargoes, while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad needs weapons, ammunition, and spare parts from Russia and Iran to resist the two-year-long civil uprising in his country.

India, which had sought but failed to include a provision that would have prevented an ATT from applying “to contractual obligations under defense cooperation agreements,” also expressed strong objections to the text. India is one of the world’s largest arms purchasers.

Sujata Mehta, the head of the Indian delegation, said her country “cannot accept that the treaty be used as an instrument in the hands of exporting states to take unilateral force majeure measures against importing states-parties without consequences.”

To the General Assembly

With consensus agreement on the treaty blocked by three states, the Kenyan representative took the floor to read a joint statement endorsing the text on behalf of a group of treaty supporters that also included Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The Kenyan delegate said that once the meeting closed, a letter would be sent to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon requesting that he bring the treaty text to the General Assembly for adoption. As of midnight on March 28, 90 countries had joined the effort. The ATT resolution was to be introduced and voted on April 2.

Leaders of human rights and development organizations that have been campaigning for passage of an ATT for years hailed the outcome of the conference.

“We applaud the Obama administration for standing on the right side of history and joining with other countries to call for a vote on the treaty at the General Assembly,” said Raymond Offenheiser of Oxfam America in a March 28 statement. “The world must not rest until it is adopted,” he said.

If adopted by the General Assembly, the pact would be opened for signature in early June and would require the signature and ratification of at least 50 states to enter into force.