Global arms control treaty at risk of becoming a damp squib

By Marek Marczynski, Head of Military, Security and Police at Amnesty International. Follow Marek on Twitter @MarekMarczynski.

Every year, roughly half a million people are killed by firearms, many of which have been transferred irresponsibly.

The poorly controlled flow of arms also fuels conflicts in which millions more die because of mass displacement and loss of access to basic health care clean water and food.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, it is estimated that more than five million people have died since 1998 as an indirect result of armed conflict.

In order to address this global challenge, Amnesty International – alongside other civil society groups and victims of armed violence – advocated for an international treaty to regulate the global transfer of arms.

We argued that arms should not be sent to places where they are likely to be used to commit serious human rights violations.

Those massive campaigning efforts resulted in the adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which came into force on 24 December 2014.

Since then, the international community has been trying to develop rules and procedures that will make the ATT fully functional.

The first Conference of States Parties (CSP) to the ATT is due to take place in Mexico in August 2015.

Meetings aimed at paving the way for a successful first conference have been taking place throughout 2015 in Port-of-Spain and Vienna. The final preparatory meeting took place in Geneva this week.

However, the future success of the ATT is being called into question in these discussions.

States that have so far supported tight regulation of arms transfers are now backing off, in order to make space for a compromise with those who want the treaty to be “business as usual”.

This has affected the debate over how transparent and publicly accountable the arms trade is going to be under the ATT.

Transparency is one of the main objectives of the ATT, in recognition that the trade in arms has, up until now, been shrouded in secrecy.

The value of the trade is estimated to be close to US$100 billion annually and it is constantly increasing. In 2010 it was around US$72 billion. And if you add on all the related services, including military and construction, the trade is worth at least around US$120 billion right now.

During the preparatory conference in Geneva, the key discussions affecting transparency focused on the participation of civil society groups in the CSP and on how much information on arms transfers should be reported and made publicly available by states.

Some states suggested that civil society groups should pay a fee to participate in the work of the CSP. Other states said they would be willing to limit the groups’ participation to plenary sessions, excluding NGOs from attending meetings of subsidiary bodies.

These proposals are shocking. They undermine the core idea behind the ATT, which is to ensure transparency in the arms trade and to reduce human suffering.

Civil society is crucial to ensuring transparency in the arms trade.

Amnesty International and other groups have campaigned for the establishment of the ATT for almost 20 years.

Together, they have developed a massive amount of expertise which can only strengthen the treaty. They also provide an important link to the victims and survivors of armed violence whose suffering the ATT is supposed to reduce.

Closing civil society’s access to the work of subsidiary bodies will inevitably mean the most important discussions on the transfer of arms will again be shrouded in secrecy. This will indeed mean “business as usual”, as the whole purpose of the ATT will be seriously undermined.

Deliberations are also taking place in Geneva on what information on arms transfers should be reported and made publically available by states.

Unfortunately civil society groups have not been able to make a meaningful contribution to the development of these proposals.

As a result, the latest reporting templates did not live up to the standard of transparency established by the treaty. Proposals on state reporting have been stripped down to a bare minimum, which means that states may only be obliged to report on the value of transfers annually.

It is essential to the meaningful implementation of the ATT that states provide a comprehensive picture of their arms transfers. In order for those reports to be effective, they should include information on both authorizations and actual arms deliveries. The size of the transfer should include the number of units as well as the financial value. States should also report separately on each category of small arms and light weapons.

It is also vital that the information on the end use – and on the end user – of the arms is reported, and made publically available.

The question of who ends up using the arms, and how, matters a great deal.

This could mean the failure to prevent the death of half a million people next year because of the irresponsible transfer of arms, while allowing the arms industry to cash in another US$120 billion.

It has a direct bearing on the likelihood of those arms being used to commit human rights violations.

As the final preparatory conference of states parties to the ATT concludes in Geneva, states must realise that without transparency, the treaty will have little positive effect.

Unless states allow civil society groups to meaningfully participate in the work of the ATT, and unless they adopt comprehensive and transparent reporting requirements, the treaty will have not be effectively enforced.

Take Action: Call on Canada to join the Arms Trade Treaty