This article by Ray Acheson of Reaching Critical Will of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) calls for an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) that will not merely be used as a procedural authorisation of arms transfers. WILPF calls for the ATT to be a strong tool with the primary purpose of preventing armed conflict, preventing the violation of human rights and international humanitarian law, and seriously reducing the culture and economy of militarism.

The Arms Trade Treaty: Getting to negotiations
by Ray Acheson, Reaching Critical Will, WILPF, 13 February 2012

Over the past several years, the UN process to negotiate an arms trade treaty (ATT) has been carried out cautiously and inclusively to ensure that at every turn those participating are comfortable with the process and the goal. As we near the end of this process, to culminate in negotiations this July, the question in this final preparatory committee (PrepCom) becomes not what will be negotiated but how it will be negotiated.

Questions of process and machinery have proved troublesome in the world of disarmament and arms control. The Conference on Disarmament, the UN’s permanent forum for such negotiations, has been blocked since 1998. Treaties on antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions have been negotiated outside of the formal UN context altogether. But the process to develop international standards for the arms trade has so far proceeded smoothly. For this to continue, member states will deal with some of the key procedural issues at this PrepCom.

Civil society positions on procedure are likely as diverse as governments’. What NGOs largely seem to agree on is that the Chair’s latest draft paper should be used as the basis for negotiations. It is not perfect—certainly, many civil society groups and many governments will be advocating for a much stronger treaty in the months to come. But it provides a solid foundation from which we can move forward.

Transparency will also be an essential element to the continued process. Civil society groups have been involved since before the inception of the treaty process. In the early 1990s, an active civil society campaign began promoting the negotiation of a robust, comprehensive, legally-binding treaty to establish standards and restrictions on the international trade in conventional arms. Nobel Laureates joined together to call for such a treaty. The continued inclusion of civil society in the ATT process will be important throughout this PrepCom and the July negotiations.

The final PrepCom may also address some substantive issues. Many governments and civil society will continue to work for a robust treaty that will be a strong tool for preventing armed conflict, preventing the violation of human rights and international humanitarian law, and seriously reducing the culture and economy of militarism. The global arms trade is now valued at over 50 billion USD per year and global military spending as a whole reached 1.6 trillion USD in 2010. The too-high price of weapons in dollars and human lives is increasingly highlighted by the global economic crisis and austerity measures being implemented around the world.

A few elements to this end include:

  • Strong criteria on international humanitarian law, human rights, sustainable development, and sexual violence must be at the heart of the ATT.
  • The ATT should include a restriction on arms transfer where there is a substantial risk that the export under assessment may be used in acts of sexual or gender-based violence.
  • Small arms and light weapons and ammunition must be included in the treaty, along with the other categories of conventional weapons.
  • Police and internal security equipment should also be included in the treaty. Excluding such items would have serious implications for human rights abuses.
  • The ATT must not be restricted only to exports of conventional weapons. The criteria from transfers must also apply to imports, transit and transshipment, and brokering.
  • The treaty should elaborate specifications for national reports on all arms transfers and should require states to publicly declare this information.
  • The treaty should also establish an independent implementation support unit (ISU) that could serve as a repository for national reports; review and analyze data in these reports; provide administrative and technical support to states parties’ in their efforts to implement the treaty, report, and convene meetings to review implementation; assist with peer review of national implementation systems; help match assistance needs and resources; and even monitor and verify states parties’ implementation of and compliance with treaty obligations.

For more details on what the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom is calling for in the Arms Trade Treaty, please see: