Comment & analysis

A step closer to an arms treaty in 2013?

22 November 2012 Roy Isbister

The Arms Trade treaty resolution passed at the recent UN General Assembly First Committee meeting has brought agreement on a robust treaty a significant step closer, says Roy Isbister

On 7 November, at the UN General Assembly First Committee, the international community voted overwhelmingly in favour of returning to the negotiating table to agree a global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). This would finish the negotiations started but not completed in July this year, and agree regulations on the international movement of conventional arms. 

At the meeting a total of 157 states voted in favour of a resolution that sets aside the last two weeks in March 2013 to finish the job of negotiating the Treaty.  Eighteen states abstained, but no state voted against.  This is the strongest support any UN resolution on an ATT has enjoyed (there have been four since 2006), with states such as China and India voting ‘yes’ for the first time. This represents a significant milestone.  (See the voting record for the resolution.)

Significantly, the resolution includes the decision that the draft text submitted by the President of the July Diplomatic Conference (DipCon1) on 26 July 2012 “shall be the basis for future work on the Arms Trade Treaty”. This means that when the 2013 conference (DipCon2) convenes it will not be starting from scratch.

Also of note is that the resolution directs the General Assembly to remain “seized of the matter during its current session”. When this is considered alongside a reference to DipCon2 being the “final” conference, it paves the way for a rapid return of the ATT for consideration by the General Assembly should no treaty be agreed at DipCon2.  This is important because the DipCon rules of procedure require that any outcome must be agreed by consensus. This potentially allows the wishes of an unrepresentative minority to frustrate the will of the international community as a whole. By contrast, General Assembly standard rules of procedure allow for decisions to be taken by a two-thirds majority. 

Although these are positive developments, much remains to be done before and at DipCon2 to deliver a strong ATT.  While the July 2012 draft text contains a range of positive elements, it includes as well a significant number of loopholes, as has since been acknowledged by many states.  If these loopholes are not addressed they will seriously compromise the ability of the ATT to outlaw many of the arms transfers that are destroying lives and livelihoods around the globe. 

States will need to resist the temptation to take the easy path – agreeing to a treaty that is of little substantive difference to the current draft text. Instead they should undertake the more difficult task of closing the key loopholes to secure a robust and effective treaty that will save lives.

Roy Isbister works on arms transfer controls for Saferworld.

“This is the strongest support any UN resolution on an ATT has enjoyed”

Roy Isbister, Saferworld