Four years ago the Arms Trade Treaty opened for signature in New York. Almost 70 world leaders were in the audience, eager to be among the first to sign the ATT. It was a celebratory day, full of ambitious statements of what this new Treaty, the first to regulate the global trade in conventional arms, and with central criteria around international human rights and humanitarian law, would achieve in reducing human suffering around the world.
But will those lofty words ever be realized? Four years on, some of the governments which were at the forefront of working with civil society to achieve the Treaty are among its worse violators. The excitement of chasing the goal of a Treaty, a new legal framework, has morphed into the dull reality of tedious UN meetings discussing rules of procedure and financial arrangements.
Last week in Geneva, in four days of meetings to prepare for this year’s ‘Conference of States Parties, governments spoke not of arms transfers that were in violation of the Treaty, but of standing meetings, payment schedules and reporting templates. All are important infrastructure elements that need to be in place, but not at the expense of discussing actual arms transfers that are leading to civilian deaths and humanitarian crises.
Control Arms, raising the issue of arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the context of the devastating humanitarian crisis in Yemen, a people facing a daily barrage of aerial bombardment, were even reminded by the chair not to ‘repeat points already made’. Governments, it seems, are tired of civil society reminding them of their legal obligations. But perhaps a better way to manage NGOs persistent points would be to engage with them, and discuss ways to prevent such violations persisting.
The US, a signatory to the ATT, recently announced its intent to proceed with an arms deal to Saudi Arabia worth over $100 billion in its first year, a deal of staggering proportions, equivalent to the entirety of the rest of the current global arms trade. States Parties, including the UK and France, continue with arms transfers to Saudi also, despite the overwhelming evidence that that such weapons will almost certainly be used against civilian targets in Yemen, and therefore authorizes contrary to Articles 6 and 7 of the ATT. This situation is surely worthy of States Party’s time to examine and discuss.
While Yemen stands out as one of the most egregious violations of the Treaty, it is not the only case. From South Sudan to Syria, arms flows continue to fuel conflicts and human rights abuses.
The Arms Trade Treaty remains a relatively new Treaty in the international scene. Progress has been made – it is positive that there are more than 90 ATT States Parties now, and that many have put in place national control lists, the first step in ensuring Treaty implementation. Others have made their arms exports public for the first time, and some have reported stopping arms transfers in the face of evidence of likely human rights abuses.
But there is still much more that governments need to do to properly implement the provisions they are now legally obligated to. For the civilians of Yemen, there is not that luxury of time. It is time for government to revisit those speeches and ambitions of four years ago, and to take action.
Written by Anna Macdonald