Comment & analysis

The Arms Trade Treaty – An Extraordinary Meeting?

9 March 2016 Elizabeth Kirkham

The first Extraordinary Meeting of State Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty made progress on administrative issues, but missed an opportunity to tackle the dire situation in Yemen.

On Monday 29 February 2016, 52 States Parties, 22 Signatories, plus Observer States and Civil Society met in Geneva for the first-ever Extraordinary Meeting (EM) of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) to agree on outstanding issues concerning the establishment of the ATT institutions. Although this was the meeting’s avowed purpose, it was also an ideal opportunity to demonstrate that the ATT can and will change the discourse and conduct of the international arms trade, most notably in light of arms supplies to the conflict in Yemen.

Conflict in Yemen has created a humanitarian crisis on a massive scale. All sides to the conflict have been using conventional arms to commit serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Despite this, in the past year arms transfers have been authorised and/or delivered from at least 10 ATT State Parties and Signatories to the Saudi-led coalition, which has been identified by the UN as responsible for a large number of civilian deaths and injuries in their aerial bombardment of the country. Sadly, the opportunity to confront continuing violations of the ATT was eschewed by the Extraordinary Meeting. A request from the Control Arms coalition for a debate on transfers of arms for use in the conflict in Yemen was refused by the EM President, Ambassador Emmanuel Imohe of Nigeria, as was a follow-up request to table an ATT Monitor case study on how arms sales to Saudi Arabia are causing human suffering in Yemen. Ambassador Imohe responded that the subject was more suited to the second Conference of States Parties (CSP2), even though this is not scheduled until August.

While this delay will only add grist to the mill for the ATT’s opponents, it is important to note that, in respect of the situation in Yemen, the ATT itself is not the problem; rather it is being let down by some of its hitherto most strident advocates, including the UK. Indeed, the conflict in Yemen and, in particular, the conduct of the warring parties clearly demonstrates the relevance and utility of the ATT as a framework for responsible decision-making in the field of international arms transfers; if applied in spirit and to the letter, transfers from ATT States Parties of arms at risk of being used in the war in Yemen would cease. 

Having refused to consider the situation in Yemen, the meeting continued, with its focus primarily on issues relating to the Secretariat. Relevant administrative arrangements were agreed subject to a silence procedure of 20 days; in the meantime work has begun on setting up the Secretariat with the Interim Head of Secretariat beginning work on 1 March. Nevertheless, some decisions were postponed until CSP2, for example approval of budgets for the Secretariat and for CSP2 itself.

The issue of reporting was also tackled. The disappointingly low number of States Parties (42 out of a possible 61) reporting by the 24 December 2015 deadline on steps taken to implement the Treaty (the ‘initial report’) was noted. On the other hand, the fact that all but two of the 42 reports had been placed in the public domain was widely welcomed. A proposal to re-establish the working group on reporting was tabled by the group facilitator with a view to completing work on reporting templates in advance of CSP2. This received support from States Parties, however a small number, including the US and France, expressed support for a clause in the terms of reference that raised the prospect of the working group being closed to civil society if this was requested by one State. Objections from Control Arms and Mexico led to an impromptu informal consultation, which produced a compromise solution whereby a meeting of the working group could only be closed if a proposal to this effect received support from two thirds of the States Parties involved. The working group on reporting is now likely to meet in Geneva back-to-back with informal preparatory consultations in the period leading up to CSP2.

With the first Extraordinary Meeting falling short of expectations, the task for those of us who wish to see an effective ATT being robustly implemented is to increase the pressure on States Parties to fulfil their obligations under the Treaty. Central to this is the requirement that States Parties do not authorise arms exports where there is a substantial risk they will be used to commit or facilitate violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law, terrorist acts, international organised crime and/or serious acts of gender-based violence and violence against women and children. Saferworld will be working with States Parties to ensure that this is a central component of the discussions leading up to, and during, the meeting in August.

Elizabeth Kirkham is Small Arms and Transfer Controls Adviser for Saferworld.

 Find out more about our work on the Arms Trade Treaty.

“With the first Extraordinary Meeting falling short of expectations, the task for those of us who wish to see an effective ATT being robustly implemented is to increase the pressure on States Parties to fulfil their obligations under the Treaty. ”

Elizabeth Kirkham