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What the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) means to a young person like me…
an article by Meg Villanueva

As I walked on my way out of the United Nations Headquarters in New York last April 2, 2013, I could not help but keep the big smile (cheek to cheek) on my face, my heart as if shouting “we did it!” Yes, we did – we now have an Arms Trade Treaty! Adopted by the UN General Assembly on that same day!



click on photo to enlarge

40 minutes ago, I was sitting in the General Assembly among a number of NGO/civil society representatives, including the Control Arms Campaign, a coalition which I am part of. My heartbeat was pumping double time as I wait for the results of the vote on the screen, where the list of countries in green font was being displayed. Then, it was announced, 154 voting YES, 23 ABSTAIN and 3 voting NO. The NGO side on the 4th floor/level burst into a long applause, and I shouted “wooohoooo!”

Five days back, (Thursday, March 28, 2013), the consensus process failed after Syria, the Democratic People´s Republic of North Korea, and the Islamic Repubic of Iran blocked the Arms Trade Treaty agreement. Despite many attempts to save the process through further consultation, the President of the Conference, Ambassador Peter Woolcott of Australia, reached a conclusion that CONSENSUS could not be achieved.

At this exact moment of voting, I was sitting right next to my father in Conference Room 1, where all other campaigners and civil society representatives who could not be accommodated in the main meeting room were gathered. As we watched fervently on the screen where a live video of the adoption process (happening in the next room) was being shown, I could feel the “sighs” and frustration of campaigners and civil society representatives from around the world.

At one point, after the floor was given for Syria to speak (after North Korea and Iran) - the room suddenly burst into some sort of “yeah right, this must be a joke” laughter. The frustration I felt towards the decision converted into a feeling of being ganged-up on. I am from a small developing country in Asia (Philippines). To think that three (yes, 3!) countries can destroy/ruin an initiative like the ATT, pushed by so many countries in the world, seemed like an unbelievable mistake that we have allowed our social structures to do to us. It felt like my present and future (our present and future!) was being dictated by these three countries – and we are voiceless about it.

Reflection on the consensus process.

The consensus process, to me, does not give room for diversity, for differences that we all have in reality. To me it is a flawed decision making process. Honestly, I believe that all other processes that involve nation states to decide on the “future” of its people, to me are also flawed systems. We are all aware of the many countries/nations that are not representative of its people! And is there “real” democracy being practiced by nations? I doubt.

(This article is continued in the discussionboard)

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How did the arms treaty come about?, and who worked on it?

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The following account comes from Amnesty International:

The long journey towards an Arms Trade Treaty

(click here for the treaty text).

Sometimes a simple but potentially revolutionary idea can change the world for the better.

But it often takes a crisis to galvanize people to take action.

This was the case two decades ago when the worldwide civil society movement – led by Amnesty International – took on the immense challenge of regulating the global trade in conventional arms.

For many world leaders, the 1991 Gulf War in Iraq drove home the dangers of an international arms trade lacking in adequate checks and balances.

When the dust settled after the conflict that ensued when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s powerful armed forces invaded neighbouring Kuwait, it was revealed that his country was awash with arms supplied by all five Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council. Several of them, it emerged, had also armed Iran in the previous decade, fuelling an eight-year war with Iraq that resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths.

The crisis of legitimacy in the conventional arms trade triggered a paradigm shift, says Brian Wood, Amnesty International's Head of Arms Control and Human Rights. “It was big series of scandals at the time. The Permanent Five Security Council members and the other major players had no choice but to do something to regain confidence from world opinion.”

Transcending the old idea

Political leaders had already tried in vain in previous decades to rein in the poorly regulated global arms trade.

In 1919, horrified by the slaughter of the First World War, the newly formed League of Nations tried to restrict and reduce international arms transfers of the type that had led to death and destruction on a massive scale during the war.

But those efforts in the 1920s and 1930s to establish a treaty were variously designed on the basis of old colonial rivalries – and soon collapsed. Countries with empires and ambitions returned to massive re-arming through production and transfers, leading to another catastrophic global war that erupted in 1939.

In the wake of the Second World War’s atrocities and loss of life on a scale never before seen, the emerging international community established three pillars – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Charter, and the Geneva Conventions. These were a huge step forward for global human rights and humanitarian standards.

Like the League of Nations Covenant, the UN Charter had a mandate given to the Security Council to establish a system for the regulation of arms, but for more than 60 years the Security Council never even proposed a system for the conventional arms trade, despite the trade continuing to grow and fuel the very violations the three new global standards were meant to curtail.

Although the Cold War brought with it new multilateral controls over the movement of arms across borders, such limitations were outside the UN and part of the calculated global game of chess between NATO members on the one hand and Warsaw Pact countries on the other. Any concern for the human rights or humanitarian impact of arms transfers was again notably absent.

But a series of shocking crises in the late 1980s and 1990s – the first Gulf War, the Balkans conflicts, the 1994 Rwanda genocide and conflicts in Africa’s Great Lakes region, West Africa, Afghanistan and in Central America amongst others – drove home the urgency of moving forward with attempts to control the global arms trade.

The International Code of Conduct

As these crises were kicking off, NGOs and lawyers became increasingly concerned about the serious human rights and humanitarian impact of irresponsible arms transfers.

Wood recalls how in 1993 and 1994, he and representatives from three other NGOs met in an Amnesty International office in central London to draw up a draft legally binding International Code of Conduct for international arms transfers – for tactical reasons aimed initially at European Union (EU) member states.

The EU – shocked by the post-Gulf War revelations about transfers of weapons and munitions – had just agreed to a list of eight criteria for arms exports. This was followed by a set of principles on arms exports agreed in the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in November 1993. . ...more.


This report was posted on April 27, 2013.