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Reflections on the Second Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty

August 31, 2016

On Friday 26 August 2016, President Imohe closed the Second Conference of States Parties (CSP2) to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). From WILPF’s perspective, and many others in civil society, the conference did not live up to necessity. While exporting states parties reiterated their commitments to the ATT, it was clear that this commitment has its limits, and that these limits appear to correspond directly with lucrative opportunities for arms deals generated by conflicts such as that in Yemen. In the case of the UK and other exporters to Saudi Arabia, to continue these arms sales is to undermine the implementation of the ATT, despite ample pressure on the UK government to review these exports.

Encouraging developments

Nevertheless, there has been busy progress in the more procedural and administrative tasks of the conference. These are essential components for the operation of the ATT, and are part of the process of any multilateral instrument. A Voluntary Trust Fund (VTF) has been established according to Article 16 of the Treaty text, with a diverse membership amongst its selection committee and a number of states expressing their interest in being donors. The financial assistance of the VTF should help to support equal participation and strengthen the implementation of the Treaty, contributing to conference attendance, and to technical and legal capacity building.

Photo: UNDP/Flickr

Photo: UNDP/Flickr

Three working groups have been set up, on reporting and transparency, implementation, and universalisation. The terms and conditions of these subsidiary bodies of the ATT have not yet been decided, but for now the understanding is that the working groups will be open to civil society, discouraging practices of exclusion and privacy. Transparency and public reporting were part of WILPF’s advocacy points for this conference, and maintaining civil society participation in the ATT’s subsidiary bodies is an essential component of this. As stated during the conference by Natalie Goldring in the CSP2 ATT Monitor, “If countries can’t justify their actions to the public, they shouldn’t be taking those actions in the first place.”

The creation of the working groups implies consensus among CSP2 participants that these aspects of the Treaty – implementation, universalisation and reporting – are the most substantial and therefore require a depth of discussion that might not be permitted by the time constraints of a full conference. This is encouraging, though it is important that these groups allow for the full and effective participation of civil society and small delegations that may find it difficult to attend additional meetings.

No accountability

These practical developments, however useful, sit in the uncomfortable shadows of the real issues at hand. In particular, civil society was troubled by the silence on civilian casualties in Yemen, as some states deftly sidestepped direct confrontation over issues of ATT implementation and compliance. Article 17.4.a of the ATT text asks that the conference of states parties “review the implementation of the Treaty.” However, big exporting states focused their plenary statements away from the soundness of their risk assessment processes and onto more nebulous issues such as universalisation, tacitly creating an illusion of their incontrovertible commitment to the Treaty. In fact, the burden of proving political commitment to the ATT fell to those states that typically require international assistance or that had newly acceded to the Treaty. It is clear which state agendas dictate the order of the day.

Unhappy proof of this lies in the fate of paragraph 34 of the final conference document. Paragraph 34 made reference to Peru’s emphasis on synergies between the work of the ATT Secretariat and the UN Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights, specifically regarding Human Rights Council resolution 32/12 of July 2016, which includes a mandate to report on the “impact of arms transfers on human rights.” This was the only mention in the report that recalled states parties’ human rights obligations in regards to arms transfers. The protest against this paragraph took many forms, from objecting to misrepresentative language around regional Latin American support, to arguing that this suggestion did not occupy sufficient time during the plenaries to merit a citation in the report. Eventually it was expunged from the record. Amazingly, states parties could agree that their attention to human rights concerns during CSP2 had not been notable.

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WILPF sections from Spain, Colombia, Cameroon and Sweden meet with Ivor Fung (UNSCAR) as they prepare for CSP2 at the Geneva office.

Future advocacy

What this conference has taught us, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that there is work to be done to ensure that the ATT is mobilised to fulfil its stated purpose of reducing human suffering. During the plenaries, the disconnect between promise and practice was captured neatly in the statements made by civil society representatives versus state delegates. If nothing else, we have clarity on what the issues are when it comes to states in dialogue with each other, and must continue to demand that states parties use ATT meetings to challenge and condemn those transfers that violate the Treaty. We must ensure that the working groups do not become a means of entirely exporting the meaningful substance of the ATT out of conferences of states parties. Furthermore, states should not have the opportunity to use lengthy debates on procedural and organisational matters to procrastinate or preclude engagement with the actual analysis of Treaty violations.

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