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Ben Donaldson

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The Final Push for a Loophole-Less Arms Trade Treaty

Posted: 26/03/2013 09:58

In November last year, UN member states voted overwhelmingly in favour of finalising a global Arms Trade Treaty in March 2013. The creation of such a treaty could significantly reduce the armed violence caused by weapons falling into the hands of criminals, insurgents and human rights abusers.

With just 72 hours remaining of the negotiations which began on 18 March, there is an increasing concern that a number of loopholes will be present in the final treaty text.

I'm writing this from a hotel next to the UN headquarters in New York where an entire floor of the building has been transformed into the engine room for the Control Arms coalition - an international alliance of NGOs working to ensure that the world ends up with a robust treaty that addresses the suffering caused by the unregulated arms trade.

Since last Friday (22 March) when the president of the Conference, Peter Woolcott, released a loophole-ridden draft of the treaty, a wave of frustration has spread throughout both the Control Arms organisations as well as throughout many of the delegations here at the conference. There is a strong feeling that, with this text, the president is reneging on his commitment to the vast majority of states who are calling for a robust treaty, and is instead appeasing a handful of major arms-exporters.

The president's move flies in the face of at least 118 states who, on the opening day of the conference, declared that a weak treaty would be worse than no treaty since it could legitimise bad practice and irresponsible behaviour.

There are several core elements that need to be improved over the next three days if we are to get a treaty that will clean up the illicit arms trade and save lives.

Firstly, a major concern is that ammunition is not properly covered in the scope of the treaty. This will be a particular worry to those African states awash with AK47s where conflict is fuelled by easy access to ammunition.

Another weakness is in the criteria for assessing the risk of arms transfers. As currently written, transfers would only be stopped where there is an "overriding risk" that the weapons will be misused - a threshold that is too high to stop many of the irresponsible transfers that lead to violations of human rights and humanitarian law.

Since there will not be a global body set up to enforce the treaty, successful implementation will depend on signatory states putting in place effective national implementation measures. For this mechanism to be transparent and effective, states must be mandated to publicly report on their arms imports and exports. Worryingly, this measure has been left out of the draft text.

These weaknesses are not the quixotic ambitions of hard-line campaigners; they have the support of the majority of member states. Since the conference operates on the basis of consensus this is not enough. During the last days of negotiations, the multitude of states that have long championed a robust treaty must work tirelessly to get these provisions strengthened, and the president needs to adhere to his promise not to let consensus mean unanimity, and to listen to the majority in the room.

If agreement on a robust text cannot be reached by Thursday afternoon, the draft text can be taken to the General Assembly and voted on. Then, agreement need not be constricted by consensus and the weight of the vast majority of states that want to secure a strong treaty would be felt.

While a treaty with broad participation should remain the objective, a robust text - even if not all states are willing to sign it immediately - will prove far more effective in the long run than a weak treaty that states subscribe to but subsequently ignore.

 

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