‘Tonight isn’t failure, it is success deferred’, proclaimed UK ambassador Jo Adamson at the end of the final Arms Trade Treaty Conference in New York on 28 March 2013.
This strong display of defiance was a warning to those states which had cynically blocked a strong, robust Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) potentially saving the lives of millions around the world. The offenders? Iran, Syria and North Korea. These are not states well known for their strong commitment to human rights. In this sense then, although frustrating, this further delay in the creation of an ATT should come as no surprise. The Syrian regime has continuously and relentlessly committed grave human rights abuses against its own citizens for the past two years, since the beginning of the Syrian uprising. In the pursuit of their own interests, Russia and Iran have continued to supply arms to the Assad regime contributing to the bloodshed. An ATT would prevent such supply of weapons, without which the Syrian regime would undoubtedly have collapsed. Is it any surprise then that Syria decided to block the ATT? This is just one example of why we need a strong, robust ATT.
According to Oxfam, 2000 people die from armed violence every day and many more are displaced, maimed or lose their livelihood as a result. Conflicts cost African countries $18 billion every year. This is a direct result of the currently unregulated arms trade. Bananas are regulated, so are MP3s, yet there are no legally binding international rules regulating the arms trade. This is beyond belief. The time to act is now. It has taken a long time to get to where we are today and with an ATT within our grasp we cannot allow the selfish interests of a few states to override the majority will. A strong ATT prohibiting the supply of arms where there is a substantial risk that such weapons will be used to commit or facilitate serious human rights violations has been lobbied for by Amnesty International for over twenty years. We have come too far to turn back now.
How then was the selfish interests of a few states, notorious for their human rights abuses, able to override the will of the majority? The answer: consensus. For an ATT to be adopted at the conference consensus amongst all states was required, meaning that refusal by just one state to accept the Treaty would block the ATT completely. This arguably seems unfair and indeed, Mexico even suggested ignoring Syria, Iran and North Korea and adopting the ATT anyway. Although appealing, there is no justification for disposing with UN procedure in this manner, it is clearly stipulated that consensus is required, and consensus was not achieved. However, this far from represents the death of an ATT. The draft Treaty will now be taken to the UN General Assembly where a mere majority is required. No state can unilaterally block the Treaty. Therefore, it seems that an ATT will be adopted very soon, despite the best efforts of Iran, Syria and North Korea to achieve otherwise.
The final draft soon to be adopted requires states considering the export of weapons to take into account numerous considerations including whether such weapons have the potential to contribute to or undermine peace and security, as well as whether or not they could be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international human rights law (art 7). Authorising the transfer of arms which would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity or illicit trafficking is also prohibited (art 6).
After more than a decade we are finally close to having a strong, robust ATT which will save the lives of millions worldwide. The journey may have been delayed along the way but it will soon be complete.