Strategies to Protect, Maintain, and Enhance Transparency in the ATT in the Time of COVID-19: Side Event Report

Raluca Muresan, Control Arms

This post originally appeared in Reaching Critical Will’s ATT Monitor.

“Promoting cooperation, transparency and responsible action by States Parties in the international trade in conventional arms, thereby building confidence among States Parties”

Article 1, Arms Trade Treaty

Alongside reducing human suffering and contributing to peace, security, and stability, transparency is one of the three central purposes of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). Since the treaty’s entry into force in December 2014, 110 states parties have made the commitment to bring arms transfer decisions out of the shadows by implementing risk assessment procedures in line with international human rights and humanitarian law, reporting annually on arms imports and exports, and working to prevent and detect diversion of arms. Yet, almost six years on there is a steady decline in the quantity and quality of reporting on arms transfers, alongside an unwillingness to make arms transfer data publicly available, as well as little to no examination or analysis of potential treaty violations, and a growing interest in closed processes that exclude the voices of key ATT stakeholders. This undermines the initial momentum towards transparency. Compounding these trends are the restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, which further limit the ability to gather, communicate, cooperate, and share information.

In a side event organized by Control Arms to discuss these concerns, Cesar Jaramillo of Project Ploughshares made a compelling case for protecting transparency. He stressed the need to ensure that measures implemented this year in response to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic are really necessary and that they should not outlast the exceptional circumstances for which they were developed. As a silver lining to transparency, Jaramillo noted that the global health crisis has encouraged further cooperation and coordination, information sharing, and best practices beyond public health initiatives.

Recognizing civil society as a key stakeholder in multilateral processes, Maricela Muñoz, Minister Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of Costa Rica, stressed the importance of protecting civic space. She described how through advocacy and the provision of research, data, legal, and technical input, civil society is able to shape policies and set high national and international norms. In this regard, she recalled the role that civil society played during the treaty’s negotiations in ensuring that the ATT included strong provisions on transparency. While acknowledging national security concerns that might hinder open and transparent discussions within the ATT process, Ms. Muñoz urged ATT states parties to commit to transparency and inclusion of civil society.

Frank Slijper of PAX focused on transparency in arms transfers decisions. He regretted ATT states parties’ preference for prioritizing procedural matters over substantive discussions on arms transfer decisions. Reminding participants that transparency in arms transfers is at the core of the ATT, he stressed that it is “high time” for states to make a serious effort to integrate discussions of actual export risk assessments into the ATT process. Using the Netherlands export control system and policies as an example, Slijper highlighted a series of good practices that can contribute to transparency and accountability without jeopardizing national security or commercial interest. 

Focusing on two other aspects of transparency—in ATT reporting and in the ATT process, specifically the working methods of the Conference of States Parties (CSP) and its subsidiary bodies—Cindy Ebbs of Control Arms highlighted emerging trends that may erode the ATT’s purpose of transparency. In stressing that “transparency cannot be achieved by selective disclosure of information to just a handful of stakeholders”, Ebbs noted that to be effective, ATT annual reports must be timely, accurate, comprehensive, and public. Ebbs also cautioned that without actively and intentionally safeguarding the space within the CSP process for open discussion and debate, transparency in the ATT process will continue to disappear.

The ATT is one of four treaties that fall under the rubric of humanitarian disarmament, along with the bans on landmines, cluster munitions, and nuclear weapons as well as ongoing initiatives on lethal autonomous weapons systems, drones, and the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Bringing the broader perspective of the humanitarian disarmament sector, Bonnie Docherty of the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School stressed the importance of partnerships and the role of civil society in multilateral processes. Echoing other panelists, she stressed that the limitations of digital diplomacy should not be used to limit the access of stakeholders in multilateral processes either now or in the future. Docherty also highlighted a recent civil society initiative which calls on governments to follow the principles of humanitarian disarmament as we develop policies and systems for a post-pandemic world. Endorsed by 250 organizations from around the world, this initiative exemplifies how NGOs can advance thinking in the field of disarmament and can push states to adhere to higher global norms. 

A recording of the side event is available here.

Correction: Note that the original ATT Monitor version of this article said that 205 organizations had endorsed the civil society initiative. In fact, the initiative has been endorsed by 250 organizations.