The Multilateralist

Gearing up for the arms trade treaty negotiations

At a downtown briefing this morning, representatives of Amnesty International USA, Oxfam America, and the Arms Control Association were modestly optimistic about the prospects of a useful arms trade treaty (ATT) emerging from UN negotiations that begin next week. Preliminary talks about such a treaty began in 2006, and that process will finally culminate in ...

At a downtown briefing this morning, representatives of Amnesty International USA, Oxfam America, and the Arms Control Association were modestly optimistic about the prospects of a useful arms trade treaty (ATT) emerging from UN negotiations that begin next week. Preliminary talks about such a treaty began in 2006, and that process will finally culminate in a month-long negotiating session in New York.

There was a lot of talk at the session about the absurdity that sales of bananas are more regulated internationally than sales of assault rifles and about the need for more states to enact domestic legislation regulating arms transfers. The assembled activists did leaven their optimism with a dose of reality. They acknowledged that the treaty almost certainly would not contain any binding language or enforcement mechanisms. Instead, every country will determine for itself whether an arms sale or transfer is likely to contribute to human rights violations. (Under the ATT likely to emerge, Russia could report that it has duly considered whether arming Syrian forces would lead to violations and decided that it would not. Nobody would be able to gainsay the Kremlin, at least not through the treaty mechanism.)  What's more, the treaty negotiations will be conducted on a consensus basis (Washington insisted on that), which means that any state can block adoption of a text it doesn't like.  

So given all this, why the optimism? Even in the absence of enforcement mechanisms or independent assessments of state claims, they believe an ATT will cement into international law the principle that states must consider the consequences before transfering weapons. They're hopeful that a treaty will provide new talking points to those condemning arms sales to bloody-minded regimes. And they contend that because the treaty may require states to adopt export legislation, it could open avenues for domestic activists and opposition groups to challenge sales by their governments.

At a downtown briefing this morning, representatives of Amnesty International USA, Oxfam America, and the Arms Control Association were modestly optimistic about the prospects of a useful arms trade treaty (ATT) emerging from UN negotiations that begin next week. Preliminary talks about such a treaty began in 2006, and that process will finally culminate in a month-long negotiating session in New York.

There was a lot of talk at the session about the absurdity that sales of bananas are more regulated internationally than sales of assault rifles and about the need for more states to enact domestic legislation regulating arms transfers. The assembled activists did leaven their optimism with a dose of reality. They acknowledged that the treaty almost certainly would not contain any binding language or enforcement mechanisms. Instead, every country will determine for itself whether an arms sale or transfer is likely to contribute to human rights violations. (Under the ATT likely to emerge, Russia could report that it has duly considered whether arming Syrian forces would lead to violations and decided that it would not. Nobody would be able to gainsay the Kremlin, at least not through the treaty mechanism.)  What’s more, the treaty negotiations will be conducted on a consensus basis (Washington insisted on that), which means that any state can block adoption of a text it doesn’t like.  

So given all this, why the optimism? Even in the absence of enforcement mechanisms or independent assessments of state claims, they believe an ATT will cement into international law the principle that states must consider the consequences before transfering weapons. They’re hopeful that a treaty will provide new talking points to those condemning arms sales to bloody-minded regimes. And they contend that because the treaty may require states to adopt export legislation, it could open avenues for domestic activists and opposition groups to challenge sales by their governments.

Negotiations in New York are scheduled to run from July 2 through July 27.

David Bosco is an associate professor at Indiana University's School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of books on the U.N. Security Council and the International Criminal Court, and is at work on a new book about governance of the oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist

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