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The real-world costs of cutting the Arms Trade Treaty process

25 May 2023 Roy Isbister and Elizabeth Kirkham The real-world costs of cutting the Arms Trade Treaty process

Next year (2024) will mark ten years since the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) entered into force, marking the triumph of two decades of campaigning by Saferworld and civil society partners. But while getting the words agreed on paper is one thing; the bigger challenge comes after: making sure the Treaty makes a difference in the real world.

And as we approach this ten-year milestone, the ATT process is suffering several difficulties that have the potential to undermine the impact the Treaty can have on furthering peace, security and stability, reducing human suffering, and promoting transparency and responsibility in the international arms trade.

Twice a year since 2016, representatives from states and civil society have come together in ‘working groups’ to discuss treaty implementation, transparency and reporting, and universalisation – with these discussions building to an annual Conference of States Parties (CSP). In recent years, however, the working group meetings have been poorly attended, and so limited in scope and ambition that they often finish early after disappointing exchanges.

No one is happy with the current state of affairs, to the point where the 2022 CSP asked the Treaty’s Management Committee to review existing practices and propose how things might be done differently in future. Worryingly, however, it's clear that a number of states are seeing this as primarily about cutting costs. It was therefore no surprise when the committee proposed a drastic near-50 per cent cut to the face-to-face working group and CSP preparatory meetings, with the suggestion that this could be made up by a shift to remote, informal gatherings – the nature, focus and financial implications of which are yet to be defined. The committee is now insisting this has nothing to do with budget-cutting, but the direction of travel is obvious. In essence, the main message seems to be: the process isn’t working, so let’s shrink the process.

This whole approach feels fundamentally misguided. The Treaty is not yet achieving its aims – large volumes of arms are still finding their way to those who would use them in breach of international law to commit atrocities, or for criminal purposes. Given this troubling state of affairs, how does it make sense to spend less time and attention on ATT implementation issues? What’s more, the Treaty requires states to submit annual reports on their arms exports and imports, yet reporting rates are falling. How, then, does it make sense to reduce the time spent trying to improve the quality and quantity of reporting?

Given concerns that the ATT process is not delivering, the solution is not to squeeze the process but to fix it. Yes, resources are limited and time is precious, but states should be setting out exactly what they are trying to achieve, and then structuring the annual process to realise those objectives – not the other way around. As observed by a German official speaking on this issue: form must follow function. 

States discussed the committee’s proposals in May in Geneva in what turned out to be an unusually lively debate. At the end, one committee member concluded there was ‘broad but not universal’ support for the proposed reduction in formal meetings; but, while five states did express support for the suggested cuts, at least four opposed them – while another five expressed reservations.

All of this suggests the intention to agree on a new process at the 2023 CSP is out of step with reality. It's not clear how rushing things serves the Treaty process or implementation; rather, it invites the risk of having to re-run this whole debate in a few years’ time. Instead, it would make much more sense to use the ATT’s ten-year anniversary as the moment to conduct a meaningful review of the life of the Treaty so far: its strengths and weaknesses; its successes and failings; to build on the good and address the bad, and develop new ways of working that help to achieve the ATT that the world desperately needs.