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The dangers of an arms trader’s charter? Loopholes and loose language in the Arms Trade Treaty threaten its strength.

Even if the Arms Trade Treaty is adopted, its weak, current draft puts the treaty's effectiveness into question. / Image: Timothy Vogel

Even if the Arms Trade Treaty is adopted, its weak, current draft puts the treaty’s effectiveness into question. / Image: Timothy Vogel

Arms and bullets continue to destroy lives. Every continent in the world is marred by the devastation caused by armed violence.

This much is true.

But what is equally true is that today no effective international regulation of the global arms trade exists to combat this violence.

There is clearly a pressing need for a global Arms Trade Treaty. Such a treaty could create a binding regulation of the international trade in conventional weapons for the first time.

This March, members of AOAV will be travelling to a diplomatic conference at the UN in New York to be part of a unique opportunity to secure a treaty that could stem the flow of weapons and ammunition around the world.

AOAV’s goal is to ensure that the human cost of the unregulated arms trade is clearly visible and present in the negotiating room, helping to ensure that any treaty that comes out of it will be a significant step towards a better, more peaceful world.

The treaty coming out of these negotiations could be just that. And the time for such a landmark moment is fast upon us.

This March, those inside the UN building in New York will be faced with a choice: a choice that could help slash the trade in violent arms. A choice that could create a real opportunity to stop gunrunners operating with impunity on the shady fringes of this deadly trade.

The UN has been close before – but last time it didn’t quite get to a powerful agreement.

Eight months ago, in July 2012, a diplomatic conference failed to reach an agreement on an Arms Trade Treaty. This month, they will get a second, and final, chance to do the right thing.

But how effective will this second round of negotiations be?

At first glance, not effective at all. The current draft treaty on the table suffers from weak and ambiguous language. It gives states tremendous wiggle room to go through with arms transactions that would result in unacceptable armed violence. In effect, it gives them legal cover to continue to do so.

As it stands the draft treaty could be construed to be almost an arms trader’s charter so loose is the language. And it undermines all of its provisions by allowing states to continue with their existing arms contracts even if they go against the obligations of the treaty.

Why is this? Perhaps because the current position of many member states is for consensus on an outcome rather than to get the best treaty possible.

But this is a wrong attitude to take. AOAV believes that member states must not take the easy option. Dogmatic support for a consensus-based result creates the danger that negotiations are driven towards a lowest-common denominator outcome and that significant support for efforts to strengthen the treaty will be ignored.

This bland and unambitious approach to a rare opportunity to improve the world should not be allowed.

The states negotiating this treaty seem to have forgotten the humanitarian purpose behind it. They seem, for instance, to have cast aside any discussions related to the victims of armed violence.

It is AOAV’s position that governments, to ensure that this treaty has a real and lasting impact on the victims and survivors of armed violence, must go further.  The treaty must include provisions committing states to investing in ensuring victims receive the assistance they need to recover.

If the Arms Trade Treaty really is to make the grade, AOAV believes that players at the UN in March must close the loopholes that remain open in the draft treaty.

They must remember that they are seeking to regulate instruments of death.  This isn’t trade in televisions or refrigerators.  They must keep in mind the humanitarian impact of this unregulated trade.

They must address the fact that the current draft text does not do enough to increase responsibility and restraint in international arms transfers, leaving millions of people at the mercy of irresponsible arms deals.

To have teeth, the treaty must have strong compliance measures. It is only in such a way that it will be able to reign in the unscrupulous middle-men who are so often at the centre of illicit and irresponsible international arms transfers. In this way public reporting on all transfers must become an obligation on UN member states.

Activities such as brokering must also be carefully and comprehensively covered by the treaty. If all types of arms transfer are not included, as is currently the case, there is a real risk that a variety of ways in which arms move across borders or change possession will still be allowed. And there is a real risk that loans, gifts, and barter would go under the radar, as would transfers taking place from one state to another that take place within one country (e.g. during a military exercise). Transfers should be denied if there are substantial risks of armed violence as a consequence of such action.  It’s as simple as that.

The treaty as it stands also would not prevent the international transfer of many types of conventional weapons, including armoured troop-carrying vehicles and many types of military aircraft and helicopters (including unmanned drones) to countries where there are concerns over human rights.

And it goes on. Another major loophole in the text is that ammunition and parts and components are not included in the scope of the treaty. Rather they are addressed under the section on exports. As a consequence, these crucial items are controlled in a very limited scope.

There are currently no official estimates of the total annual value of authorized transfers of ammunition. There are no official systems in place to record the flow of ammunition to regions where there are serious humanitarian concerns and ongoing conflicts. There should be.

The reporting requirements of the existing treaty will do little to enhance transparency in the international arms trade. There are three fundamental flaws in the provisions on reporting: First, record-keeping and reporting requirements do not apply to transfers of ammunitions or to parts and components.  Second, there is no provision for national reports to be made publicly available.  Third, states are at liberty to exclude information that is considered sensitive owing to ‘commercial’ or ‘national security’ interests.

Finally, AOAV believes that the treaty must also have a rapid entry-into-force element.  Every year, every month, every hour another violent act is perpetrated, a violent act that we believe is in part preventable.

Emily Dickinson famously wrote that March is the month of expectation. Let it be so.