Arms Trade Treaty Consensus Blocked, But Success Only Delayed

March 29, 2013

By Susan Waltz and Nate Smith, Amnesty International USA’s Military, Security and Police Transfers Coordination Group

Yesterday, states that gathered to negotiate a text for an Arms Trade Treaty fell short of their goal. The rules of the negotiating conference required consensus on the text of the treaty, and this consensus was blocked by Iran, Syria and North Korea. This development need not be seen as a failure, however – as a delegate from the U.K. put it, this is only delayed success. Soon, the UN General Assembly will take up the treaty, likely in current form, and subject it to a majority vote. It will almost certainly pass this vote, at which point it will be open for signatures and ratification, and it will enter into force at the 50th ratification.

Diplomats from 179 countries walked right up to the edge of approving the text of an Arms Trade Treaty this afternoon – and then Iran, Syria, and DPRK balked. The refusal of these three countries to go along with the treaty meant that consensus could not be reached, so the treaty text will need to come before the UNGA for approval. We had hoped to avoid this outcome, but I can’t say it was unexpected. The likely next steps are that the UNGA will take up the text that has been negotiated – within a matter of weeks if not days – and at that time the treaty text will be approved by a large and overwhelming majority, including the US.  As the UK delegate put it in this afternoon’s session, this is only “success deferred, and not deferred for very long.” The treaty will then be opened for signature in June, with 50 ratifications required to enter into force.

Over the past ten days diplomats have considered three different versions of the treaty – four, if you count the draft they started with, from last July’s failed negotiations. Each version made incremental improvements. A drafting committee that included Belarus, China, France, Japan, Uruguay, the United Kingdom and several other countries produced the final draft.

The draft treaty takes international arms control law to a new place, establishing that some arms transfers are always wrong, and thus always prohibited. Weapons cannot lawfully be used for genocide, crimes against humanity, attacks against civilians and other grave war crimes – and thus a government can’t knowingly authorize shipment of weapons that will be put to these ends. The treaty goes on to establish a range of considerations that could constitute grounds for blocking an arms deal, including serious violations of human rights law. In addition,governments must take into account the risk of rape and violence against children and other civilians when authorizing an arms transfer.

One long section of the draft treaty is devoted to the problem of “diversion” – the process by which weapons that are part of a legitimate arms deal migrate over to the black market and fall into the hands of unauthorized users – criminal gangs, rebel groups, or governments under a UN arms embargo. A wide range of conventional weapons is covered by the draft treaty, from automatic rifles to battle tanks. And in separate articles, the supply of ammunition and spare parts are made subject to the same limiting conditions as the supply of weapons themselves. It seems obvious that ammunition would be included in the scope of this treaty, however more than 24 hours ago, even the U.S. was on the fence about this very notion.

The treaty does have limitations that remain cause for concern and vigilance. Surplus weapons that are transferred as military aid, for example, are covered only in an implicit way, and a country using its own transport to deliver military aid could slip through this loophole in the treaty. And disappointingly, the draft treaty doesn’t cover all the circumstances that Amnesty has been concerned about – including countries where police and security forces regularly misuse weapons for crowd control or intimidation.

Even with these flaws,the draft breaks new normative ground by inserting human rights language into a treaty that is fundamentally about arms control. This treaty won’t end conflict and human rights abuses, and it won’t stop rape and the recruitment of child soldiers. But it will make it impossible for arms brokers to claim they have transgressed no international law by importing weapons into conflict zones where crimes against humanity are being perpetrated, as we heard in the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide.

More than fifteen years of work to make human rights an integral part of decisions about weapons transfers will soon come to fruition, in all likelihood. In the end, the world’s leaders – including the Obama administration – were persuaded to listen to their better angels and support the treaty.

Now we move on to the next phase. When the treaty is finally adopted in the General Assembly, it will be “asleep” – it will need to be signed and ratified by 50 countries before it can take effect. Amnesty will continue to call on the Obama Administration and the U.S. Congress take this important stand for human rights.

In the final round of talks, U.S. support was critical. Thank you to all who raised their voices so the Obama Administration could hear us. This time, the U.S. was on the right side of history and we will soon get the strong Arms Trade Treaty we’ve hoped for.