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Arms Control and Civil Society: Some Retrospect

Midori Natsuki
Policy Officer, Oxfam Japan
Midori Natsuki

Midori Natsuki

With the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) negotiation conference approaching, I suppose many of those who have been working on this issue will take a while to look back on the long journey we have been through. It is indeed a historic moment, as all the 20th century initiatives to create a universal agreement to control arms transfers met with setbacks. Whether the agreed ATT (if agreed at all) would resolve the obstacles which frustrated the previous attempts - for instance, how to regulate arms transfers in a way which would prevent arms from being excessively accumulated or misused and which, at the same time, would not work in a discriminatory manner against certain states or peoples1 - remains to be seen. I feel honoured to witness and to be a part of this effort, but also overwhelmed by the responsibility it will entail.

I joined Oxfam Japan in September 2003, one month before the Control Arms campaign was launched, and my organisation and other Japanese NGOs decided to set up the national campaign in 2004. However, the campaign met with difficulties from the outset; there was virtually no public space to discuss on arms transfer control in an inclusive way and very little knowledge about the issue among the national campaign members. After its policy work had found its way to my desk, I needed to face up to the social conditions which lay behind these difficulties.

The widespread anti-war sentiment following World War II gave rise to a variety of peace movements in Japan. As their approach generally rested on the premise of the total abolition of all arms and primarily focused on nuclear weapons, most of them did not dear to take part in the technical debates over how to control conventional arms transfers. On the other hand, the domestic policy debates on security issues were dominated by government officials and experts with similar ideological orientations, who tended to avoid peace activists. Such a polarised situation failed to foster inclusive debate on conventional arms control in the non-governmental sphere. Nor did it encourage young researchers to study conventional arms issues and be involved in NGO campaigns, which were seen as rather pacifistic by academics in defense and security studies.

In addition to regular ATT advocacy work, I have been trying to change the conditions in which we work. Together with activists, NGOs and academics in defense and security studies, we formed the Arms and Civil Society Research Forum2 in 2007, which aims to make the domestic debate on conventional arms control more transparent and inclusive. Its regular meetings and seminars are open to anyone interested. Fortunately, many people from various sectors and with different orientations have been involved in the forum, and the ATT has been one of its core themes in the last few years. At first, I worried that the ATT debate could be entangled in the polarised domestic controversies over the relaxation of Japan's self-imposed ban on military arms exports, but the forum participants have maintained their focus on the ATT, bringing in different perspectives. This situation could change, for instance, when newly appointed government officials who are not accustomed to such open debates show fear and reluctance of talking to the domestic civil society. But I feel pretty confident that they will end up changing their mind. Due in part to the technical nature of the issue, the treaty has attracted little media interest in Japan, and this is certainly a challenge that requires further exploration.

Besides such domestic developments, whether or not states will be able to agree on a treaty that has any real benefit next July is entirely another issue. As it is argued by many Control Arms campaigners, the devil is in the details. A treaty that regulates arms transfers could potentially save millions of lives, but it could do harm if it is drafted or implemented in an incorrect manner. As a rather modest supporter of the ATT in the sometimes unstable region of Asia, Japan needs to find the best way the country could contribute to the negotiations in July.

1. See Keith Krause and Mary MacDonald, "Regulating Arms Sales Through World War II," and Keith Krause "Controlling the Arms Trade since 1945," in Encyclopedia of Arms Control and Disarmament Vol. II, ed. Richard Dean Burns (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1993) pp. 707-724 and pp. 1021-1039. (Back)

2. Arms and Civil Society Research Forum blog (Back)