Veto Power Threatens Major Conference on Arms Trade

10/16/2012 10:22 am ET | Updated Dec 16, 2012

A major diplomatic negotiation aiming to regulate the trade in weapons and ammunition is at risk of failing due to member states' insistence on giving every state the right to veto a future treaty, according to the Control Arms coalition.

The Arms Trade Treaty talks, which have been ongoing since 2006, came to an abrupt end on the final day of negotiations in July after the U.S. government demanded to have "more time" to conclude a deal. Since then, countries have been discussing the way forward, including rules under which the next diplomatic conference should be negotiated. The co-author governments of the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, Kenya, Costa Rica, Finland and Argentina have led the resolution which maintains the right of any member of the United Nations membership to veto agreement when the conference is due to reconvene next year.

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The Control Arms coalition has urged member states to meet next year but under normal UN General Assembly Rules of Procedure and not under the so-called consensus rule by which every state must agree.

"By insisting on this one rule, governments are reducing their chances of a successful outcome before talks even start. We saw the impact of this rule in July when the U.S., followed by a small number of countries, prevented the conclusion of a successful conference despite having a majority of states that were then in favor of agreeing for a robust treaty", said Hector Guerra, Network Coordinator of the International Action Network On Small Arms. "We cannot have the next conference taken hostage by any one country. The first ever international treaty to control the flow of weapons and ammunition is too important to let that happen."

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The consensus rule could act as a diplomatic Damocles' Sword at the proposed spring 2013 conference

Last July, the month-long negotiation produced a draft text that will very likely be the basis for negotiations in 2013. While the text is a solid foundation to relaunch the conference, It has some fundamental flaws which must be rectified for the treaty to be effective.

The key loopholes and areas identified by civil society are as follows:

  • The Scope of the draft treaty is too narrow: The draft treaty only includes arms that fall under the seven categories of major conventional weapons covered by the UN Register of Conventional Arms plus small arms and light weapons. This means that many types of conventional weapons -- including armored troop carrying vehicles and helicopters -- are not controlled. Crucially, ammunition and munitions, parts and components are also missing from the scope section of the text so that transfers of these items are exempt from comprehensive risk assessments, as well as record-keeping and reporting requirements.

  • The threshold to assess risks of human rights and humanitarian law violations is unclear: The draft treaty sets a threshold of "overriding risk" that states could interpret as requiring the refusal of a transfer only in extreme and exceptional circumstances.

  • Exemptions for 'defense cooperation agreements' which would leave several important defense deals out of the treaty: This loophole could allow states to classify all of their arms trading operations as "defense cooperation agreements," thereby circumventing the treaty's provisions.

  • Reporting requirements will do little to enhance transparency in the international arms trade: The draft treaty makes no explicit provision for public reporting and exempts reporting on ammunition and parts and components transfers. Exemptions for 'national security' and 'commercially sensitive' data pose the risk that states will withhold vital information even from the secretariat and other countries.

  • Entry into Force (EIF) requirement of 65 is too high: This means that it could be many years before the Treaty can enter into force; a requirement for 30 states to ratify for EIF is the practice under some other instruments and would be more appropriate for the ATT.

"Major exporters have a responsibility to step up to the plate and fix these problems and ensure that a future Arms Trade Treaty establishes the strongest norm possible on international arms trading," said Jeff Abramson, Director of the Control Arms Secretariat.

"There is a risk of a diplomatic groundhog day if governments do not change their approach and get this Treaty agreed as a matter of urgency, " said Anna Macdonald, Head of Arms Control for Oxfam.

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