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Australia must push for regional adoption of Arms Trade Treaty

Australia must push for regional adoption of Arms Trade Treaty

On 24 December 2014, two decades of campaigning and several years of negotiations culminated in the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) entering into force as an internationally legally binding instrument, having been ratified by 50 countries. 

The ATT aims to provide a minimum international benchmark for responsible trade in conventional arms and addresses the roles of exporters, importers, transit states and brokering.

Australia is already ATT compliant. Australia's interest is in how the ATT can now enhance our regional security and humanitarian objectives. Entry into force is just the beginning. To use Prime Minister Abbott's simple but useful dichotomy, there is much more 'Geneva' work ahead to determine how the Treaty will work, but even more 'Jakarta' if the ATT is to serve our interests and the region's security.

Amnesty International's ATT campaign coffee mug makes the case succinctly: '1 Person Every Minute Killed by Armed Violence'. Marking Australia's signature of the ATT in 2013, then Foreign Minister Bob Carr said 'Each day there are around 2000 deaths in conflicts fuelled by illegally-traded weapons...(which) are the enablers of a catalogue of crimes, including against women and children. The greatest impact of the illicit conventional arms trade often falls on the poorest and most vulnerable communities'.

The implication is that the ATT can fix everything from gender crime to terrorism. But the ATT is not a magic wand. Bringing the treaty into force was the simple bit. Giving it teeth over time to raise levels of responsibility in the international arms trade will be harder. Helping countries to introduce and implement the controls required by the treaty will be the most difficult step. [fold]

In contrast to the attention-seeking hyperbole that surrounded much of the ATT negotiation, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's Christmas Eve media release marking the entry into force of the ATT was deceptively comforting. It failed to point out that the ATT entered into force only for those good international citizens who for the most part are already committed to best practice. It does not bind the other 70-odd countries who have signed it, but have yet to ratify. 

The immediate point to make is that the Asia Pacific region has not yet embraced the ATT (see here for the full text of the ATT and the full list of signatories and ratifications). Most Pacific countries have failed to sign it and only Samoa has ratified. There are of course resource challenges in the Pacific, so we have to help. 

But not one ASEAN member has ratified, and only five have signed: Cambodia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Resource constraints should not be a factor in a region already spending large sums on arms. This poor level of ASEAN buy-in means that the region, including Australia, is for the time being getting none of the ATT's potential security benefits.

So, to the 'Jakarta' agenda. Our defence and foreign ministers should now engage their counterparts on the ATT in bilateral meetings and through regional structures such as ASEAN, the East Asian Summit and the Pacific Islands Forum. Commitment by our regional partners to ATT standards is the real test of the success of the ATT for Australia. We should begin to incorporate ATT standards into bilateral defence and diplomatic activities, flagging that as a general rule Australia considers ATT adherence as a necessary (though not sufficient) basis for all conventional arms transfers, a discipline similar to what we require on transfers of WMD-related goods.

This should be backed by a program of practical assistance to facilitate ratification and implementation of the ATT. Despite tightened aid funding, our national security interests dictate that we expand cooperation with regional partners to enable them to implement ATT obligations.

Additionally, we have to secure the adherence of key global arms exporting and importing countries. Neither Russia nor China has signed to date, severely limiting any prospect of early improvement of global standards. In North East Asia Japan has ratified, South Korea has signed but yet to ratify and the DPRK has not signed, let alone ratified. The US has signed and will most likely not ratify, but can be expected to act as if it were bound by the ATT and to support its broader application.  

Of the top arms importers — India, China, Pakistan, UAE and Saudi Arabia — only the UAE has signed.

And finally, the 'Geneva' agenda. The ATT is basically a framework that now needs to be fleshed out. The issues are set out succinctly in a recent SIPRI brief.

Key points in the brief include: preparing for the first meeting of the states parties (which must be held in 2015); establishing rules of procedure, critically the decision making processes; determining the size and location of the secretariat (the UN's nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, has a staff of 2500; the chemical weapons watchdog, the OPCW, 500; and the Biological Weapons Convention Implementation Support Unit has three; no prizes for guessing at which end of the spectrum the ATT will land); funding mechanisms; reporting models and guides; and all importantly the mechanisms for prioritising, delivering and evaluating technical assistance.

Much of the work on these issues is likely to be done in Geneva where NGOs and diplomats led the way in negotiating the ATT. With the paralysis in the UN Conference on Disarmament, there is ample spare diplomatic talent to apply to the task.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Oxfam International.

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