On the mark: Oxfam’s insight into the Arms Trade Treaty

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In July of this year, negotiations will begin at the UN over the terms of an international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). Ahead of these negotiations, Oxfam has been one of several high-profile civil society actors emphasising the need to regulate the sale of arms and ammunition across the globe. Here, we talk to Deepayan Basu Ray, Policy Advisor on Arms and Development at Oxfam to find out more about the treaty, and its implications for democracy in Africa.

Why do you think the international Arms Trade Treaty is so important? 
From an ethical perspective, the trade in arms is not the same as the trade in other consumer goods.  Arms are specifically designed to kill, injure, or destroy. As such, the trade in arms needs to have tight controls, because the costs of misuse are counted in lives and livelihoods.  Our report, Africa’s Missing Billions, estimates that conflict costs Africa $18 billion every year, a staggering amount. The best estimate of casualties is that conflict and armed violence kill 2,00 people every day.  An instrument with global reach, legally binding, and comprehensive in its scope and criteria are the key elements of what an effective Arms Trade Treaty would look like. These elements are absolutely critical.

Without them, the ATT will not be able to bring the international arms trade under effective regulation, and will not achieve its goal of reducing human harm.
What impact is the ATT likely to have on Democracy and Democratisation in Africa?

The ATT on its own is not a panacea.  It will require a number of parallel processes, and regional, and national level initiatives to make it successful.  Assuming that the diplomatic negotiations are able to deliver a comprehensive treaty (including provisions for ensuring that arms transfers do not affect socio-economic development), then there are likely to be considerable positive impacts on processes of democratization. For example, let us take the issue of corruption and fiscal irresponsibility.  If the treaty includes strong anti-corruption mechanisms, then governments around the world would need to ensure that they are effectively combating corruption, or else they would risk impacting on their ability to procure arms. As a second issue, the need under the treaty to prevent diversion of arms and ammunition from the intended end-user will likely require stronger transparency and governance of military activities.

As your past report suggested “the devil is in the detail” – what potential loopholes are you worried about in the ATT? 

There is little use for a legally binding treaty if the thresholds for the controls are so low that the treaty effectively legitimises the existing trade!  Therefore, the treaty needs to have strong and unambiguous language (ie. “states shall nottransfer arms if these transfers affect development/human rights / etc. in a negative way”). Moreover, this strong language needs to be applicable to the full range of conventional arms and ammunition.  What use is a treaty to control the trade in arms if the trade in ammunition – which makes these arms lethal – are overlooked?

Given that the US is one of the world’s biggest arms exporters its participation in an ATT is crucial. How likely do you think it is that such a treaty will be ratified in the Senate?
The role of the US is indeed critical.  The current set of national rules that govern the sale of US conventional arms and ammunition is some of the strongest in the world.  It will therefore be in the US’s best interest to ensure that the ATT does not weaken existing US thresholds.  Senate ratification at the present time is unlikely, due to partisan divisions in that body. Although Senate ratification is the desired end-result, the Landmines treaty serves as a good example of other alternatives.  Though the US has not signed the Landmines treaty, they have also not acted in contravention of the principles and standards of the Landmines treaty. In addition, under the Vienna Convention on Treaty Law, states which sign a Treaty are bound even before ratification not to act in contravention of the intent of the treaty they have signed.

Do you think that the ATT can be effectively policed? What are the big challenges for doing so?
The ATT will not have a ‘policing’ role per say.  States are not at all interested in setting up some form of supra-national body that can punish states if they act outside the guidelines set up by the treaty.  The instrument will however rely on Annual Reports and Meetings of States Parties to receive annual reports on national implementation of the ATT, and on imports and exports of arms. Lack of implementation and contentious transfers could be debated in the annual meetings, which should over time strengthen the global norm as expressed in the ATT on what states responsibilities are and what constitutes an unacceptable arms transfer. The treaty will also rely on the ‘court of public opinion’ to encourage changes in behaviour by member states.  This does introduce a number of challenges – the most obvious one being that if states are not going to be punished for their actions, what initiative will they have to act within the parameters?  However, these mechanisms are not totally impotent, in that states quickly realise the benefits of “playing by the rules”. Finally, if States act flagrantly in violation of the Treaty then it would be open to other states to ask the International Court of Justice to rule on the legality of their actions. In this way, the ATT could be reinforced over time.

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