One year away from the Arms Trade Treaty: moderate optimism

Javier Alcalde
International Catalan Institute for Peace
Javier Alcalde

Javier Alcalde

In a year's time, in July 2012, the final negotiations for the first International Arms Trade Treaty will take place in New York. To mark this event, the ICIP has created a virtual space to provide a forum for information and debate on everything related to the ATT.

It should be remembered that it will not be a disarmament treaty in the strictest sense, because it will not prohibit any type of weapon (as opposed to the landmine or cluster bomb treaty), but it will regulate their transfer and trade, as is the case with commercial exchanges of any other product, from tomatoes to music players, cars to apartments or even the controversial issue of intellectual property, which is often considered as a commodity.

It should also be remembered that it will be a treaty that will cover all conventional weapons, i.e. the light weapons responsible for most of the armed violence that occurs in the world every day, and the heavy weapons such as aircraft or tanks, which account for a great deal of money and which is used by the SIPRI yearbook to produce the lists of major weapons producers, exporters and importers.

At the top of this list, year after year, is the United States of America, one of the countries that has been least enthusiastic about signing a possible ATT. These countries are known as skeptics. And while the change from Bush to Obama has been very apparent in terms of the attitude of the United States' representatives at the United Nations, the fact is that it remains within this group of skeptics. And in negotiations where decisions are taken unanimously, this means that each of the countries in this group in theory has a power of veto that allows it to impose its own interests.

However, in practice, the threat by other countries to resort to a faster and more efficient parallel process (like the recent Oslo process for cluster munitions or the Ottawa process for anti-personnel mines), in which only the favourable states take part, and where there is no unanimity rule and where the result may be a more ambitious document with stricter standards than those expected from the current process, can facilitate agreements within the framework of the United Nations; something which was unthinkable a few years ago.

As for the United States, it will essential to convey the message that the possession of guns by civilians is not being called into question (this aspect has been beyond the scope of the treaty negotiations from the outset, since it only seeks to regulate international trade). This is a key issue for the influential American lobby NRA (National Rifle Association), which often influences public opinion in the United States, and mainatins that the ATT would endanger the possession of weapons by American citizens.

As of today, both activists and diplomats are cautiously optimistic about achieving the ATT. Some countries have shown leadership since the beginning of the process, such as the United Kingdom, which has also succeeded in including much of its domestic industry among those supporting this treaty. And that has been possible because the arms trade per se is not being challenged, but only the part of it which is considered illicit. This is the part that allows arms to be transferred to countries that will use them for internal repression or external aggression against other states.

Similarly, the arms manufacturing and exporting industry is unconcerned, because it is confident, as with the existing national and regional regulations (such as those in the European Union), that each state will have the last word on the implementation of the treaty by means of their respective national laws, and civil society will therefore not be granted a role that is active or even dominant, like the one it has in monitoring the application of the landmines treaty.

These are key aspects in understanding the limited scope of a treaty that would nonetheless be progress, given that there is as yet no regulation on the global arms trade. We can therefore be optimistic, albeit moderately so. We can assume that there will be a treaty (fingers crossed), but a lot remains to be done.