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Comment & analysis

Much ado about nothing? Reflections on the third ATT Conference of States Parties

20 September 2017 Roy Isbister

The third annual Conference of States Parties (CSP3) to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which took place in Geneva from 11-15 September 2017, provided a largely familiar tale of frustration and disappointment.

After the two previous meetings had focused on procedural issues – such as the establishment of the rules and institutions of the regime – hopes were high that this meeting could finally focus on substantive issues, and in particular, on how the treaty is supposed to prevent irresponsible arms transfers.

The dire situation in Yemen and the continued provision of arms by ATT State Parties and Signatories to protagonists to the conflict was raised by the Control Arms coalition, by Mwatana Organization for Human Rights and by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).  NGOs also referenced irresponsible arms transfers to Egypt and the Philippines. However the vast majority of states present refused to be drawn on the question of problematic transfers. Virtually the only exception to this was when a group of Latin American states called for arms transfers to Venezuela to be halted until the situation there improved.  

Despite these calls, for the third year running, the CSP effectively dodged the big questions that go to the heart of the treaty and its effectiveness. Indeed there seems to be little prospect of the ATT delivering, any time soon, on any of its central purposes such as contributing to international and regional peace and security, promoting transparency and preventing human suffering.

On the positive side, some substantive discussion did take place in the special session focusing on the relationship between the ATT and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular Goal 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions). It was encouraging to see delegations willing to engage on this issue and we hope that further discussions – possibly in the newly constituted standing Working Group on Effective Implementation – can yield some more specific insights. It is unclear at this point how this might develop, but there is potential to look beyond Goal 16 to consider the relationship between arms transfers and goals relating to, for example, health (3), gender equality (5) and sustainable cities (11).

A welcome development of the past year has been the establishment of the Voluntary Trust Fund (VTF) and the allocation of support to a first tranche of projects. Applications have been approved from 16 projects and funds have begun to be disbursed. We hope that the VTF can help deliver concrete and effective ATT implementation support for some of those states facing the greatest capacity challenges.

Less encouragingly, declining levels of public reporting have raised widespread concern among States Parties and civil society. Given the central importance of comprehensive, accurate, timely and public reporting, the failure of 44 States Parties to meet the annual deadline for reporting on arms transfers and the failure of 14 States Parties to provide their initial reports on steps taken in the national context to implement the treaty, represents a significant step backwards. The decision to include a discussion on compliance with mandatory reporting requirements at subsequent CSPs may hopefully provide added incentive to States Parties that lag behind.

The final task for the week was for the States Parties to agree a Conference Final Report.  This ended in some disarray, however, with States Parties struggling to agree rules governing access to future Working Group meetings, and in particular the circumstances that could lead to such meetings being closed to observers (including civil society) and even state signatories.  Delegates were perhaps at their most animated during this discussion, which left onlookers to wonder how much progress might have been made towards the goals of the treaty if States had, for the last three years, been equally motivated to discuss actual arms transfers.

Read more about our work on effective arms control.