Celebrating the Arms Trade Treaty

25 August 2014, 00:00 UTC | New Zealand
AIANZ Executive Director Grant Bayldon speaks at the Arms Trade Treaty celebration event. / Photo © Rachel Banfield
By Susan O'Connor - Former Research Intern at Amnesty International NZ

On Wednesday last week, I found myself in the Grand Hall at Parliament, surrounded by politicians, members of the diplomatic community, human rights advocates and members of civil society. The occasion? A celebration of New Zealand’s imminent ratification of the Arms Trade Treaty co-hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Amnesty International Aotearoa New Zealand, Oxfam New Zealand and the New Zealand Red Cross.

There is much to celebrate. The Arms Trade Treaty is a long-needed and historic instrument that will provide the first legally binding and comprehensive international standards on the transfer of conventional weapons. The Treaty will go a long way towards halting the steady flow of arms into areas of conflict, by prohibiting the transfer of arms where there is a serious risk they will be used to commit war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide

My own engagement with the Treaty began as a university project but before long I found myself highly invested in its progress. To me, it is extraordinary that the weapons which cause significant global harm, both in times of peace and times of conflict, are weapons we call conventional, usual and ordinary. These weapons form part of the everyday of many people around the globe in a way I can’t even begin to imagine as a daily reality and experience only as news and as entertainment. Armed violence is, if not normal, certainly not abnormal. And yet we know, and have known for a long time, that conventional weapons fuel conflict, increase instability, delay development and exact a huge toll on civilian populations. They are also, as New Zealand Ambassador for Disarmament Dell Higgie reminds the crowd at Parliament, some of the most unregulated products on earth. There are, she points out holding up a postcard handed to her at the Treaty negotiations in New York, more international requirements to comply with when exporting armchairs than there are when transferring arms. As Higgie speaks, we can see a sticker placed prominently on the front of her notebook, a constant reminder that arms transfers are less regulated than bananas and that a strong arms trade treaty has become a global necessity.

The Treaty does not reach the ideals which set in motion an international campaign to regulate conventional weapons 20 years ago. To me, the exclusion of human rights violations from the list of prohibitions is disappointing. An explicit reference to human rights would have sent a stronger message to human rights abusers that such acts are never acceptable and will not be tolerated by the international community. That being said, human rights advocates can take comfort in the fact that arms exports to the perpetrators of serious human rights violations will likely be prohibited under Article 6 anyway, as these acts violate other, listed, international laws.

The Treaty adopted by the UN General Assembly on 2 April 2013 is the result of 8 years of state negotiations. Civil society, however, began working to make the Treaty a reality nearly 20 years ago. To say that the instrument is a significant achievement that highlights the importance of collaboration between civil society and state officials is an understatement. Without the passion and energy offered by non-governmental organisations around the world, we would not have been standing together in Parliament, celebrating our success. It is inspiring and exciting to witness the culmination of this work.

While the Arms Trade Treaty is not yet legally binding, it is clear that it will be before long. Over the last few months states have been ratifying the Treaty in a domino trend that is picking up speed and ratification numbers stand at 44. New Zealand is poised to join in. Our instrument of ratification is in New York and we are, it seems, simply waiting for an opportune moment to deposit it, a moment that will bring prestige to the nation as we move the Treaty from a hard fought dream into legally binding reality.

The speakers at the celebratory event in Wellington collectively issue the crowd a challenge. We have achieved an arms trade treaty; the next hurdle to be conquered is effective implementation. States and civil society alike must work to achieve this, as well as continuing to support numerous states towards ratification. Although 118 states have signed the Treaty, ratification numbers are at less than half this number. The fact that the United States, a key negotiating state, a Treaty co-sponsor and one of the world’s largest arms exporters, is unlikely to ratify the instrument cannot be allowed to derail our continuing efforts. It is only when effective implementation is obtained that the Treaty can reach its true potential. The work begun 20 years ago is not yet over and I, for one, am looking forward to embracing this challenge.

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