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Lessons learned: How NGOs contributed to the ATT success

4 June 2013 - Roy Isbister, Kloe Tricot O'Farrell

In an article written for the International Catalan Institute for Peace Saferworld's Roy Isbister and Kloe Tricott O'Farell look at the role NGOs played in the adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty at the UN and what lessons can be learned for its implementation and for NGOs in the future.

The adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) on 2 April 2013 represents the culmination of nearly 20 years of campaigning by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for the regulation of the international trade in conventional weapons. From this process many lessons can be learned. While some are obvious – such as the need for technical credibility and the importance of forming alliances – others are less so. This article picks out just a few of these lessons to ensure they are remembered in the context of the ongoing campaign for signature, ratification and implementation, as well as other international campaigns.

First and foremost, in the face of lengthy processes littered with failures, setbacks and disappointments, campaigners must not lose sight of what they want to achieve. The early campaign advocated for an "International Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers", which failed to get support because it was considered over-ambitious. In response, NGOs recast the concept as an expression of States' existing obligations under international law. By reformulating the initial package, while remaining loyal to its motivating principles and rationale, they captured the interest of a growing number of States and enabled the ATT process to move forward.

A further critical moment was the failure of the first negotiating conference, the July 2012 ATT Diplomatic Conference (DipCon1), to adopt the draft treaty text (CRP.1). NGOs had warned against the dangers of the 'consensus rule', which governed the ATT process and gave every State the power to block the treaty. In this case, the US calling for more time to review the text doomed DipCon1 to failure. At the time, this was a major disappointment to NGOs. Nonetheless, building on the momentum of DipCon1, civil society groups successfully lobbied before and at the subsequent UN General Assembly First Committee for a resolution that (1) mandated a further Diplomatic Conference (DipCon2), and (2) addressed the key procedural weaknesses of DipCon1 (i.e. the consensus rule and the absence of a follow-up mechanism in the event of no agreement). With DipCon2 set for March 2013, NGOs worked on strengthening CRP.1's provisions and encouraged the President-designate to use it as a base from which to build stronger provisions rather than as a starting point for further compromise. With hindsight, the outcome of DipCon1 was probably for the best, as the text on offer at the end of DipCon2 was stronger than CRP.1.  And while DipCon2 also failed to deliver consensus, its final text was adopted by vote in the General Assembly the following week. 

Second, NGOs need to identify and engage with "champion" States, working with them as points of leverage to bring the process forward. While the idea of an ATT was at first supported by civil society organisations and several smaller States, it was the UK announcement in support of the idea in 2004, following hard lobbying by civil society, which shifted the campaign into another gear. Subsequently, EU Member States as well as many African and Latin American States followed suit. This drove the project into the UN and on to the General Assembly's agenda, less than two years later.

Third, there are real advantages to seeking achievement of international-campaign goals through the UN where possible. Indeed, the ATT project gained huge credibility and momentum once it reached the UN arena. From that point on, all key players agreed that the UN was the preferred forum for the negotiations. However, the memory of the Ottawa and Oslo processes, and the understanding that negotiation outside the UN could ultimately be an option for the ATT if it ran into the sand in the UN, concentrated minds and helped to keep things moving forward.

The unwieldy UN procedures did nevertheless slow down the adoption of the ATT. When the 2009 General Assembly ATT resolution set out a roadmap to a negotiating conference in 2012, the US insisted it include the aforementioned 'consensus rule'. NGOs and various governments voiced concern that this could paralyse the ATT process and/or produce a lowest-common-denominator outcome, as it has with the Conference on Disarmament, but to no avail. While these fears proved to be somewhat overblown, the consensus rule was a serious brake on progress – having prevented each DipCon from adopting a treaty – and forced supportive States to make compromises with States that have shown little interest in becoming parties to the treaty. However, as noted above, the language of the most recent General Assembly resolution changed the rules of the game. It created a mechanism whereby, if the Conference failed to adopt the ATT by consensus, it could be returned to the General Assembly where it could be adopted by majority vote - which is exactly what happened on 2 April 2013. This may affect future negotiations, in that States seeking to frustrate the will of the overwhelming majority now run the risk of their intransigence being punished – by a shift to a majority-based process – rather than rewarded, as has often been the case.

Finally, providing responses to the numerous challenges of an international campaign requires a broad and well-organised NGO coalition. In 2003, the launch of the Control Arms Campaign in over 100 countries enabled the ATT process to attract a much wider audience. During its decade-long campaign, the Coalition developed into a driving force of the process, both outside and inside the UN. However, working with a large number of partners also requires a delicate balancing act. The Coalition needed a relatively streamlined leadership structure capable of taking decisions and giving direction in what were sometimes fraught and fast-moving environments, while at the same time being inclusive and providing all members opportunities for meaningful engagement. Control Arms struggled constantly to retain this balance, but in the end was able, through its shared expertise, to provide efficient and rapid analytical, legal and technical support to States.  At the same time, through its broad engagement, it was able to call on and motivate people in all corners of the world to contribute to delivering a treaty, be it through research, advocacy with governments or public campaigning.

Read more about Saferworld's work on the Arms Trade Treaty.

Read the International Catalan Institute for Peace May 2013 newsletter on the ATT.

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In the face of lengthy processes littered with failures, setbacks and disappointments, campaigners must not lose sight of what they want to achieve”