The second act of the Arms Trade Treaty negotiations has opened at the United Nations this week. Like any good drama, these talks, which began on March 18, are sure to feature tense moments and plenty of controversy, although many people involved in the process are optimistic that this act will deliver a final agreement.
The negotiations build on work started during a four-week conference in July 2012. Then, a draft text was nearly adopted by UN member states, but the talks came to an abrupt halt on the final day, when the United States and others demanded more time to conclude a deal.
A later resolution passed by the UN General Assembly on Nov. 7 gave countries the mandate to continue negotiations at the meeting this March. It also stipulated that the conference would use the July draft treaty text as the starting point in discussions.
Most participants agree that the draft text is a good basis for renewed talks. It contains strong provisions that will help the treaty to achieve its humanitarian goals. Yet it also has some weaknesses that countries and civil society members would like to see strengthened before the conference ends on March 28.
A missing piece in the text is that sales of ammunition, as well as parts and components of weapons, are regulated only as exports but not as imports or other types of international transfers. This is expected to become a major bone of contention during negotiations. The US has expressed opposition to ammunition sales being covered fully by the treaty. A State Department statement said that the US “could only be party to an Arms Trade Treaty that addresses international transfers of conventional arms solely and does not impose any new requirements on the U.S. domestic trade in firearms or on U.S. exporters.” Others, including many African nations, say a treaty that does not regulate the sale of ammunition will not be worth the paper it’s written on.
The stakes are huge. The global ammunition industry for small arms and light weapons is worth $4.3 billion annually. And 12 billion bullets are produced industrially each year.
Another concern about the current draft is that it exempts arms transfers that are part of separate defense agreements. This means that transfers done through existing defense contracts between Russia and Syria, for example, could still be interpreted as legal, despite risks of weapons being misused for human rights violations.
One other loophole is that wording in the text could be read to mean that it covers only the transfer of weapons that are sold, rather than those transferred as gifts, loans or military aid. This would exclude the $1.3 billion of US military aid provided to Egypt in March 2012, for example.
Given these challenges, what are the chances for a successful outcome? Control Arms, a global civil society network advocating for a strong treaty, hopes that this conference will yield vital results. Should the conference fail to do so, countries will convene a General Assembly session to aim to pass the treaty by a vote.
One cause for such optimism is that since July, nations have been meeting regularly in regional and cross-regional forums to closely inspect the draft text and to consolidate regional positions. Many of the meetings have included participation from legal and thematic experts from civil society. In addition, the conference president, Ambassador Peter Woolcott of Australia, has spent the period since last summer talking with many governments to hear their concerns and priorities.
Last week, Control Arms organized a Global Week of Action with activities that took place in about 20 countries. On March 14, Control Arms delivered a letter signed by 18 Nobel Peace Prize laureates to US President Obama, urging his leadership in ensuring a strong treaty. Other organizations have emphasized the links between the proliferation of arms and their harmful effects on women’s lives, a topic that was discussed at the UN during the Commission on the Status of Women conference this month. The draft treaty requires states to consider what impact a proposed arms transfer would have on gender-based violence.
More than 325,000 people are estimated to have lost their lives through armed violence since the July negotiations ground to a halt, says a recent report by Oxfam International and Saferworld, two Control Arms members. It’s critical for countries to refuse to settle for a treaty that fails to protect lives and instead to put all their efforts into delivering a treaty that gets it right.