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Comment & analysis

Arms Trade Treaty, what's happening in New York?

22 March 2013 Roy Isbister

With the Final UN Diplomatic Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty underway Saferworld's Roy Isbister discusses the key issues that must be addressed to secure an effective treaty.

The mood on the morning of the first day of the Final UN Diplomatic Conference (DipCon2) on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) was uncertain. With only nine days to reach a consensus-based agreement, it was essential that States got swiftly down to business. However, many feared that a procedural row over the status of Palestine and/or the Holy See could derail the start of the Conference, as had been the case at the July DipCon1. Similarly, even if that hurdle were overcome, arguments over the Rules of Procedure or the Agenda or, failing that, a plethora of lengthy general statements could have prevented proper debate on substance.

But to widespread amazement, everything proceeded without a hitch! Palestine and the Holy See took their allotted seats, Agendas were agreed without comment, Ambassador Peter Woolcott was confirmed as President, and we were straight into general exchanges of view. Even better, states moved rapidly to address the key issues raised by the draft Treaty text as part of their opening statements.

In particular, three joint-statements signed by a large number of states were a positive sign of the will of the majority of UN Member States to see the Conference agree a robust and effective Treaty.

On Monday afternoon, the delegation of Mexico read a statement signed by 108 states, calling for the adoption of a strong treaty. Notably, this ‘statement of 108’ emphasised that the 26 July draft treaty text under consideration (CRP.1) needs to be considerably improved. In addition, it stressed that “a weak ATT could serve to legitimise the irresponsible and illegal arms trade”. This sent the strong signal that strength should prevail in the final text presented on 28th March.

On the second day of the conference, two powerful joint-statements focused on the scope, prohibition and criteria dispositions of the treaty. First, Ghana read a statement on behalf of 69 states, mostly from Africa, Latin America and Asia, calling for ammunition to be covered in the Scope of the Treaty. Currently, the control of ammunition is compromised as these crucial items are only covered within the framework of exports and are not covered by the Scope of the Treaty as a whole. Second, speaking on behalf of 41 states, Costa Rica proposed to strengthen the language on development.

On day three, however, the mood of the Conference began to shift. While progressive states remained very active in the plenary sessions, a limited number of sceptical states were being heard to disproportionate extent in the facilitated informal discussions taking place in the early morning, lunchtime and evening. These ‘informals’ are organised around ten themes identified as ‘difficult’ and therefore requiring more extended debate. The President has proposed these as the fora within which disagreements can be aired and possible solutions discussed. Though they are open to all states, numbers tend to be significantly lower than for plenaries and, in at least some of these, the voices of the sceptical few are noticeably and unduly prominent. Although a strong and robust ATT is within states’ grasp, to achieve it we need the majority of positive states that support a strong Treaty, including the co-authors, to build upon the early positive momentum and negotiate robustly in all Conference fora. 

On Wednesday night, the President released the first of what he has said will be three draft texts. He had already promised that his first draft would in essence be a ‘legal scrub’, i.e. focused on fixing what states had identified as legal awkwardness and inconsistency in the 26 July text. In this he was as good as his word, and as such this first draft is not expected to have a huge influence on proceedings. Delegates are already focused on his second text, long-signaled as the place where the real substantive changes will appear. This arrives on Friday afternoon; the weekend is already booked solid with analysis and strategy sessions as states, and civil society, prepare themselves for what should be a hectic final week.

Roy Isbister is Head of Arms Transfer Controls for Saferworld.

Read Getting it Right - The pieces that matter for an Arms Trade Treaty.

“we need the majority of positive states that support a strong Treaty, including the co-authors, to build upon the early positive momentum and negotiate robustly in all Conference fora”

Roy Isbister