Reaching a robust ATT: Over, around, or through the major exporters?

Author(s): Dr Natalie J. Goldring
21 March 2013

Over the last few days, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) negotiators have made significant progress. More than 100 countries supported a statement on Monday that advocated significant strengthening of the July 26th
working draft. Even countries that had consistently expressed skepticism about an ATT were presenting suggestions for specific text changes. For the so-called “skeptics”, this was a significant change from their approach during the July negotiating conference, in which they frequently made long rhetorical comments that were largely devoid of specifics. It seemed as though even the skeptics had concluded the ATT train was leaving the station and they had decided to be on board.  

As regular readers of the ATT Monitor are aware, one of the most important articles in the prospective ATT addresses the issue of national assessment. It details criteria for assessing the risks involved in a potential arms transfer, and also presents circumstances under which a transfer should not take place. According to the draft text, after considering various issues, such as whether the arms transfer would be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international human rights or humanitarian law, if an exporting state finds that there is an “overriding risk “ of any of these consequences, the exporter should refuse to authorize the transfer.  

Although this section of the text has some weaknesses, it still sets out one of the core principles of an ATT—that countries should not sell arms to a recipient that is likely to use those weapons in violating international human rights and/or humanitarian law. The relevant paragraph states that after considering various issues, such as whether the arms transfer would be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international human rights or humanitarian law, if a state finds that there is an “over-riding risk “ of any of these consequences, the exporter should refuse to authorize the transfer.  

One of the most significant weaknesses in the current text is this use of the phrase “overriding risk”. The consequences listed in the national assessment are precisely the circumstances the Treaty should be designed to help prevent. The current language sets an extremely high bar for blocking a sale.  In effect, it biases the argument in the direction of approving sales, even if there is significant concern that the weapons will be used in abuses.  

Advocates of a strong treaty have proposed changing “overriding risk” to “substantial risk”. On Wednesday, the US delegation voiced its objection to these proposals. During the intervention, US Assistant Secretary of State Countryman expressed his dismay that the group was considering changing the wording of the section from “overriding” risk to “substantial risk”.  

He claimed that changing the wording from “overriding risk” would be an explicit statement that arms exports cannot contribute to security. He also claimed that a change in wording would ignore the potential negative consequences of failing to provide arms to a country fighting terrorists.  

As part of his intervention, Assistant Secretary Countryman also directed a patronizing comment at non-governmental organizations, saying he understood the view of some (unspecified) NGOs that the arms trade is not a legitimate activity, but that every government in the room imports weapons and understands their contribution to peace and security. That sort of comment is gratuitous, and has no place in these negotiations. NGO activists have brought awareness of these issues to the international community; some have risked their lives doing so.  They deserve more respect than they were accorded on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, Germany and Lichtenstein played an extremely constructive role by immediately and directly countering the US statement, effectively reviving the momentum in favour of “substantial” risk. These types of exchanges are making it clear that in the end, countries that want a strong Arms Trade Treaty are going to have to call the US bluff, and not just on this issue.  

The bottom line is that we’re not here to make friends or see how many countries will sign on to the ATT. We’re here to produce a strong treaty that will help save lives.  We may have to do so over, around, or through the objections of some of the major exporters.

This article was originally published in Reaching Critical Will's ATT Monitor.