by Helena Whall, Advocacy Officer, Oxfam

On 3rd June, government and civil society representatives gathered at the UN in New York for the Signing Ceremony of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), adopted by 156 states in April. 67 nations signed the treaty on that day, one third of the UN’s membership. Five more have signed since (as of 10th June). This number is due to climb steadily between now and the UN General Assembly in September, when more countries are committed to sign.

In his address to the UN, Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon said it was an “historic event”, the ATT a “landmark treaty.” “With the ATT,” he said, “the world has finally decided to address the free-for-all nature of the arms trade.” The treaty “will make it harder for weapons to be diverted into the illicit market, to reach warlords, pirates, terrorists and criminals, or to be used to commit grave human rights abuses or violations of international humanitarian law”, providing “hope for millions for women, men and children who live in deprivation and fear.”

Commonwealth signatories

Of the 72 signatories, 21 are Commonwealth members – almost one third of the signatories and roughly proportionate to their percentage within the UN. They include:

Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Bahamas, Belize, Burundi, Cyprus, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Malta, Mozambique, New Zealand, Rwanda, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Seychelles, St Kitts and St Nevis, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu and the United Kingdom.

In addition, Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria have expressed their willingness to sign at the upcoming General Assembly.

It is unsurprising that these Commonwealth members signed the treaty, since they played such a progressive role in the negotiations, ensuring a strong and robust treaty. Three of the seven ‘co-authors’ of the ATT were Commonwealth countries: Australia, Kenya and the UK. Others also pushed for a treaty that will make a real difference to peoples’ lives, including New Zealand, and Nigeria on behalf of ECOWAS. CARICOM, led by Trinidad and Tobago, strongly argued for a treaty that was comprehensive in its scope (covering ammunition, parts and components and Small Arms and Light Weapons) and robust in its criteria. The ATT was also the topic of a 2012 Roundtable at the Royal Commonwealth Society. And the final Diplomatic Conference, held in March this year, was presided over by Peter Woolacott from Australia, which is likely to be one of the first countries to ratify the treaty.

However, despite the active involvement of these members, the Commonwealth association never took a strategic role in the Arms Trade Treaty negotiations. It was absent from the Preparatory Committee Meetings and the two Diplomatic Conferences (its seat unoccupied throughout) and made only cursory references to the ATT at CHOGMs (e.g. in the Perth Communiqué, 2011).

In a report released in November 2012, UK Parliamentarians drew attention to the Commonwealth’s lack of ‘coordination and leadership‘ during the first Diplomatic Conference on the ATT in July 2012, as noted by this author in an Oxfam Blog and by the now-disestablished think tank, the Commonwealth Advisory Bureau (CA/B), which challenged Commonwealth members to take a more central and progressive role in the negotiations.

Now that those negotiations have been successfully concluded, there are two big challenges – ratification and implementation of the treaty. For most Commonwealth states, ratification is unlikely to pose a difficulty; however, many small or under-resourced members, particularly Pacific and Caribbean states, are likely to face serious impediments in implementing it effectively. It is timely therefore to ask if, and how, the Commonwealth might assist its member states in this vital task.

No reason for delay

The treaty will become international law after 50 states have ratified it. With 72 signatures already and promises from many for swift ratification, this could happen within two years. Indeed several Commonwealth states have already begun the process of ratification, including Australia, New Zealand, Trinidad and Tobago and the UK.

“For many countries, implementation may not be so easy”

A states’ ability to ratify quickly rests less on their willingness, than their capacity to do so. National constitutions describe how a treaty is formally
ratified – the greater the breadth of political support necessary, the more difficult it is. Conversely, the
lower that breadth, the sooner a country can ratify.
Fortunately, most of the Commonwealth countries
which have signed the ATT can ratify treaties
through the decisions of their cabinets or heads of
government, or by a rule or tradition of informing the legislative body of signed treaties. They could therefore ratify relatively quickly. Only a handful of Commonwealth signatories have higher hurdles, such as Cyprus, Mozambique and the Seychelles.

With no obvious reason for Commonwealth signatories to drag their feet, we certainly should soon see many ratifications from Commonwealth states. Indeed it is imperative that we do. But, for many countries, implementation may not be so easy.

Implementation – is there a role for the Commonwealth?

To fully implement the ATT, all states that have ratified will require a national system for the control of international transfers of conventional arms. That must include licensing, enforcement, and external outreach (to industry, international partners, and the public). For each of these elements, consideration must be given to legal requirements, institutions and procedures, training, and proof of implementation. The ATT sets minimum standards that all states will be expected to incorporate into their laws and processes. A number of Commonwealth states which are signatories to the treaty, particularly the small island states, will not already have adequate national control systems in place and will therefore need some assistance to build and implement systems that are compliant.

Several other Commonwealth states have announced that they will fund technical assistance to help implement the treaty. Australia announced US$1million at the Signing Ceremony to assist with implementation. Jamaica also offered its assistance. Trinidad and Tobago offered to host the Implementation Support Unit, and it is likely that the UK will also make funds available.

“The Commonwealth Secretariat could make a real difference and show its support for the treaty”

However, there are no assurances that this financial assistance will be directed towards Commonwealth members which might struggle to implement the treaty. It is here that the Commonwealth Secretariat could make a real difference and show its support for the treaty. One way it could do this is by freeing up some of the annual budget of the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation (around £24 million) designed to support the economic growth, poverty reduction and sustainable development of member states, particularly small island states, to assist with the implementation of the treaty.
Much of the work to be done to implement the ATT could be a legitimate use of Official Development Assistance. Oxfam estimates that cumulative expenditure on ODA-eligible security sector activities by major donors in 2010 amounted to $832.5m. This would include projects focusing on security sector reform, including: monitoring, training, or retraining civil administrators and police forces in routine policing functions; training in customs and border control procedures; and civilian oversight and democratic control of security expenditure.

The Commonwealth has a long and successful history in providing technical assistance to its member states and collaborating with other development partners to ensure a joined up and targeted approach for optimal development impact. With many of its members soon to ratify the Arms Trade Treaty and in need of assistance to implement it effectively, this is an ideal opportunity for the association to ensure that the treaty has a real impact on the lives of the millions of citizens living within the Commonwealth.

Oxfam has campaigned for many years on the Arms Trade Treaty and is a member of Control Arms.

Helena Whall is an Advocacy Officer with Oxfam, and was a Postgraduate Research Fellow at the ICwS after gaining her PhD from the ICwS in International Relations.