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July-August 2010
Vol. 35, No. 4


Toward an Arms Trade Treaty

In mid-June, government representatives gathered in New York for the Biennial Meeting of States (BMS) to review progress on the UN Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects. After a week of deliberations at the United Nations, the nations agreed to strengthen their cooperation to reduce gun trafficking and armed violence.

According to the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), the meeting focused on several key topics including combating illicit small arms trade across borders and improving international cooperation and assistance. The BMS also laid the foundation for a successful ongoing process on small arms and light weapons and reviewed country reports, which are important for building transparency and confidence.

In October 2003, Amnesty International, IANSA and Oxfam International began the Control Arms campaign. In December 2006, they successfully mobilized an overwhelming majority of governments (153) to vote in favor of an historic UN General Assembly (GA) resolution 61/89 which called for work to begin towards a global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) covering international transfers of conventional arms.

In 2007 and 2008 a process to assess the feasibility, scope and draft parameters of an ATT included input from states, nongovernmental organizations and, finally, a UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE), which was mandated to examine the same ATT-related topics. The GGE was composed of experts from countries including Brazil, China, Egypt, France, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. The United States, which was the only state to oppose the 2006 UN vote in favor of working towards a treaty, also had an expert at the discussions.

In October 2008, 147 states voted to move forward on the ATT and to establish an Open-Ended Working Group, open to all UN member states to further consider the elements in the GGE report where consensus could be developed for their inclusion in an eventual, legally binding treaty.

In July 2009, for the first time, all governments agreed that international action is needed to address the problem of the unregulated arms trade. Almost no state seriously questioned the merit of developing international regulations, and a majority of the countries urged that negotiations begin on an ATT. A clear message was given that a small number of states must no longer block the desire of the overwhelming majority for a legally binding ATT. While the U.S. has previously opposed discussions on a future ATT, it was now willing to fully engage in the debate.

In October 2009, after years of discussions and debates, the vast majority of governments – 153 in total – agreed a timetable to establish a “strong and robust” ATT with the “highest common standards” to control international transfers of conventional arms. Most of the world’s biggest arms traders – including the U.S., United Kingdom, France and Germany – agreed to back the UN process. Nineteen states abstained but were all expected to take part in the process. Zimbabwe was the only state to vote against.
The Control Arms campaign – now a coalition of hundreds of non-governmental organizations in over 100 countries – called on all states to negotiate a truly effective treaty. They warned that governments must keep up the momentum to ensure the final treaty has firm international standards for the global arms trade. The ATT will be negotiated in a series of UN meetings concluding at a UN conference in 2012; the next preparatory meetings will take place in New York July 12-23.

The Control Arms Campaign advocates for a global treaty based on “five golden rules” to help stop those international transfers of conventional arms that are likely to be used for serious human rights violations, and fuel conflict and poverty: “States shall not authorize international transfers of conventional arms or ammunition where they will: (i) be used or are likely to be used for gross violations of international human rights law or serious violations of international humanitarian law; (ii) have an impact that would clearly undermine sustainable development or involve corrupt practices; (iii) provoke or exacerbate armed conflict in violation of their obligations under the UN Charter and existing treaties; (iv) contribute to an existing pattern of violent crime; and (v) risk being diverted for one of the above outcomes or for acts of terrorism.”

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