Comment & analysis

A week of little progress

10 July 2012 Roy Isbister

As negotiations for a global Arms Trade Treaty enter their second week, Roy Isbister reports there is still a long way to go to agree a meaningful treaty.

If you’d told me ten years ago that in the summer of 2012 I’d be attending a month-long Diplomatic Conference (DipCon) in the UN in New York at which a global ATT was being negotiated I would have laughed at you.  But in New York, negotiating, is exactly where we’re at.  And everybody who helped get us here deserves some serious thanks. 

Rather a pity then that, so far, despite overwhelming support among states for the project, a small collection of states that are antipathetic to the whole idea have managed to slow proceedings to a crawl.  By rights, we should now be taking stock on five days of ATT negotiations.  Unfortunately it hasn’t quite worked out that way. 

To start with, most of the first two days were taken up with a discussion about Palestine’s status in the negotiations.  This didn’t make all the government ministers who had turned up for the opening High-Level segment best pleased.  We did manage to get off to a bit of a start on Tuesday morning when UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon opened proceedings with a very powerful statement in which he made a strong case for a “robust and legally binding ATT that will have a real impact on the lives of those millions of people suffering from the consequences of armed conflict, repression and armed violence”.  And then at the end of the day we managed to squeeze in statements from the three government ministers—from Norway, Japan and Australia—who were still at the UN.

At the end of Tuesday, the conference chair Ambassador Roberto Garcia Moritán also took the opportunity to release a new discussion paper, which he said was his work alone and that states should feel free to embrace or reject it as they saw fit.  But it has to be said that, although containing some improvements, on the whole the new paper was something of a disappointment (see below). 

On Thursday the DipCon started to gather pace (Wednesday was a US holiday), with states lining up to make their opening statements as part of the High-Level segment, even if most of the Ministers had long since departed.  But procedural wrangling soon once again reared its ugly head, with the usual suspects protesting over plans to run two committees at the same time and insisting that nothing could be discussed until treaty goals and objectives were agreed. Behind the scenes efforts were being made to exclude NGOs from at least part of the proceedings. 

After repeated interventions from sceptical states, it was eventually agreed that the DipCon could proceed on the basis of Moritán’s two-committee system for one day (Friday), after which states would reconsider whether his approach was working.  While one of the Committees was to be ‘open’, the other was to be ‘closed’ to NGOs.

The subjects for discussion on Friday in the respective committees were scope, and goals and objectives.  Unsurprisingly, the meetings began with further discussions about procedure, dominated by sceptical states. However, as the day wore on, issues of substance forced their way through the procedural soup.  At this point we saw a change in the balance of interventions, with supportive states playing a much more active role.  While there were a wide range of views expressed – and it is clear that there is still a long way to go to agree a meaningful treaty – this was a reminder that most states do actually support the idea and that as long as we can focus on substance we can make some real progress. 

Unfortunately the second week started on a rather less optimistic note…

Roy Isbister works on arms transfer controls for Saferworld.


Saferworld’s main concerns about the Chair’s new discussion paper are that:

  • the only mention of anything approaching a humanitarian/human rights imperative in the goals and objectives of a treaty is a reference to “[reducing] unnecessary human suffering” (emphasis added);
  • the criteria are too complex, give rise to a number of inconsistencies, are unworkable, and introduce language that has no foundation in relevant international law;
  • the definitions of the types of activities and transactions to be covered aren’t clear, consistent or properly comprehensive;
  • transfers of technology fall outside the treaty scope, while it seems to be left to the discretion of individual states as to whether they control ammunition for small arms and light weapons.


A more detailed analysis of the new discussion paper will follow shortly.

Throughout July, read the latest updates from Saferworld's team at the UN Arms Trade Treaty negotiations in New York.