On April 2 2013, following a campaign that lasted more than two decades, member states of the UN finally voted to adopt the Arms Trade Treaty. It was an amazing majority: 154 votes to three, with 23 abstentions, so you’d think this would be the end of our campaign, right?
Well, we are really happy but we’re not hanging up our campaigning tools just yet.
There are two key reasons that we need to keep pushing governments towards effective regulation of the billion-dollar arms trade.
The first is simple: Although 154 states voted in favour of a Treaty, it does not come into force until at least fifty of them have signed the Treaty and written it into national law. We’re urging as many as possible to do this when the Treaty opens for signatures on 3 June.
The second is slightly more complicated. The Treaty includes many of the elements that we focussed our campaigning on, but it’s not perfect. When governments attend the UN signing ceremony on 3 June, they are given an opportunity to strengthen the Treaty through their ‘interpretive statement’.
What we want strengthened, and how
We campaigned together for a number of features to be included in the Arms Trade Treaty, and these became important negotiating points in the talks.
Now that it has been adopted, it’s worth revisiting where we got with each feature - and where we need interpretive statements to strengthen the Treaty. We wanted it to:
Protect human rights. We got this. The ‘golden rule’ we campaigned so hard for made it in and the treaty contains obligations to deny weapons where it is clear that they will contribute to serious violations of human rights and international law.
Concerned? No real concerns here, but we’d like states to publicly commit to not transferring arms where there is substantial risk that they will contribute to serious human rights abuses.
Cover a broad scope of arms. This proved to be one of the toughest fights but states will now have to implement a transparent export control system to regulate all transfers conventional weapons, including ammunition and parts and components. An Export Control System is what a state now has to use to determine when it can and cannot transfer arms.
Concerned? The scope of equipment remains too narrow - ammunition and parts and components are not fully covered. But we did win a crucial clause that encourages states to regulate a much broader list of equipment. And we need states to commit to this in their interpretive statements.
Apply to all types of trade. One of our key concerns was that the illicit trade could still get arms into the arms of those who use them to commit human rights abuses. We campaigned for and won a clause that puts clear obligations on states to deny any transfers that risk arms being diverted to the illicit market.
Concerned? We’re not too concerned about this area, but would like to see governments commit to applying the rules of the treaty not just to commercial sales and government deals but also gifts and loans
Be enforceable and transparent. We wanted the Treaty to ensure governments adopt strong national laws, rules and regulations to strictly control all weapons transfers. States are now obligated to submit annual reports of their arms transfers so we will be able to hold them to account over the decisions they make.
Concerned? We want states to say they will enforce the obligations of the Treaty on all weapons transfers – those from, into, via and through their territories, including those transfers conducted by individuals and companies operating under its jurisdiction.
Why Interpretive Statements matter
States’ interpretive statements are used to establish strong ‘customary norms’ – a legal term that refers to when general practice becomes accepted as law.
These norms are often used to close gaps left by treaties, for example customary International Humanitarian Law has strengthened the protection offered to victims in conflict.