Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Africa: African States Push for a Bullet-Proof Arms Trade Treaty at the United Nations

Source: ISS
African States Push for a Bullet-Proof Arms Trade Treaty at the United Nations

Gugu Dube, Researcher, Arms Management Programme, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria

At the recent United Nations (UN) General Assembly First Committee’s 67th session, which took place from 8 October to 6 November 2012, governments passed a UN resolution to hold an extremely important diplomatic conference on the arms trade treaty (ATT) in 2013. The First Committee deals with disarmament, global challenges and threats to peace that affect the international community and seeks solutions to the challenges in the international security regime. It considers all disarmament and international security matters within the scope of the Charter or relating to the powers and functions of any other organ of the UN.

The vote on the continuation of the ATT negotiation process had an unprecedented outcome, with 157 states voting in favour of the ATT conference, 18 abstentions and no votes against. And even more significant, China has for the first time voted in favour of an ATT resolution. African states should be praised for strongly supporting what is seen as the most important recent initiative regarding conventional arms regulation within the UN. The majority of the African continent was present at First Committee meeting, with the exceptions of Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Rwanda, São Tomé and Príncipe, Seychelles and Somalia. Egypt and Sudan were the only African states to abstain.

The Diplomatic Conference on the UN Conference on the ATT that had taken place at the UN Headquarters in New York from 2–27 July 2012 had ended in failure. Several governments, including the United States, had blocked the negotiating states from reaching an agreement by demanding extra time to agree on a draft text.

Agreeing on a strong treaty will not be an easy task. Bearing this in mind, it is imperative that African states continue to advocate for a treaty that covers a broad range of weapons, including small arms and light weapons, and ammunition. To be effective, governments should be required to regulate the international trade in and transfer of weapons, perform risk assessments before authorising an arms transfer and track the use of exported arms. The treaty should preclude governments from transferring arms to any state that is subject to a UN arms embargo, and prevent arms transfers in instances where there are serious human rights violations in the intended recipient state.

In his opening remarks, the Chair of the July 2012 conference, Ambassador Roberto García Moritán of Argentina, argued that international security is built on a succession of multilateral actions. The historic lack of action on regulating the international trade in conventional arms is, as the UN Secretary-General has said, rather unfortunate. Ban Ki-moon noted rising military expenditure, armed conflict and human rights violations as requiring concerted, collective action on this issue. The Norwegian Minister of International Development, Heikki Holmås, described the unregulated arms trade as contributing to ‘conflict, displacement, crime and terrorism, thereby also undermining peace, reconciliation, safety and stability’.

While different entities play different roles in the arms trade, all should be bound by a collective responsibility to uphold what must be the key objective of the treaty: the preservation of human security and the prevention of human suffering. A strong, robust, transparent and effective ATT will be an essential piece of what Moritán described as ‘the fabric of collective commitments’ aimed at strengthening international peace and security. Achieving this treaty will require not only good faith among all participants but an uncompromising dedication to alleviate human suffering.

Since 2006, civil society has played an important role in the ATT process. When diplomats voted at First Committee in favour of holding a final UN conference on the ATT in March 2013, civil society raised concerns over a contentious stipulation that the text must be agreed under the ‘consensus’ rule.

The crux of the matter is that the ATT is too important to allow any one state the power to derail the treaty process by a veto. Diplomats risk weakening the text to get the support of states that are sceptical of the ATT. Following intense lobbying by civil society, the resolution contains a proviso that if all states are not able to agree to a deal in March, the UN will keep the treaty on its current agenda. This would allow the text to be sent for a final vote at the UN General Assembly later in 2013.

The current draft text is a good basis for a strong ATT. However, there are several aspects that warrant concern: one major issue is that ammunition, a deadly trade of over US$4 billion annually which needs to be better regulated and monitored, is not yet properly included. Another clause could exempt weapons transfers from the treaty if they are labelled as part of a ‘national defense cooperation agreement’, leaving many current and future agreements outside the realm of an ATT. Campaigners are also worried that the threshold for denying an arms transfer is currently set too high, so that some irresponsible deals could still slip through the net. Much work is still needed to fill in the missing pieces that will help the ATT have a meaningful impact once adopted.

It is imperative that African states continue to resist pressure and hold firm for a robust ATT that includes ammunition and small arms.

Africa is one of the regions in the world most affected by the impact of armed conflict. Weapons have streamed into the region for decades, devastating the lives and livelihoods of countless people, in addition to destroying economies.

During the July 2012 negotiations, the government of South Africa stated that it ‘supports an ATT that will regulate all arms transfers, both military and commercial. Thus, it should not be limited to the weapons covered by the UN Arms Register, but should include small arms and light weapons, as well as ammunition. While some states may believe that the administrative burden of regulating ammunition may be too excessive, South Africa believes that the death, injury and suffering caused by ammunitions, particularly to civilians in armed conflict, and the use of illicit small arms and light weapons by far outweigh such administrative concerns’.
The majority of African states support this position and that is why it is imperative for African states to keep the momentum going. African states need to continue to resist pressure to weaken the treaty and hold firm for a robust ATT in March 2013.