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A treaty in progress

The inconclusive Arms Trade Treaty conference has given India time to analyse the draft and see that its concerns are addressed

Published: July 31, 2012 12:51:41 am

The inconclusive Arms Trade Treaty conference has given India time to analyse the draft and see that its concerns are addressed
Rahul Prakash

After years of discussion and debate on the need for international standards to regulate the trade of arms,more than 170 countries gathered in New York from July 2-27 to draft the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). Unfortunately,they were not able to settle their differences and the conference failed to produce the much-awaited treaty. However,India defended its interests well. Some of its core concerns,such as illicit trafficking of small arms and light weapons (SALW) to non-state actors and national-level implementation,seemed to have been addressed in the most recent draft of the treaty.

While the first few days were wasted in arriving at a consensus on procedural issues,towards the end of the third week the chairman of the conference circulated a draft treaty that attracted criticism from international non-governmental organisations (NGOs),human rights advocates and some states who believed the draft was too weak to improve the situation on the ground. This led to the circulation of a revised draft which,to a certain extent,seemed to satisfy critics. As consensus could not be reached on several aspects within the stipulated time,the voting on the ATT has been suspended for now.

This has not gone down well with activists and campaigners for the treaty. While there have been various attempts in the past to formulate such rules,it was only in the mid-2000s when NGO activists in Europe started highlighting the adverse socio-economic and humanitarian impact of the illegal arms trade in many developing countries that the debate started moving forward. These groups have blamed the US for the failure,which has been facing immense domestic pressure from groups such as the National Rifle Association to oppose a treaty which would restrict its citizens’ constitutional rights to own arms. A bipartisan group 51 Senators had also shown their strong opposition to such a treaty in a letter to US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Washington had not supported such a treaty under the Bush administration,but voted in favour of the ATT after the Obama administration took over. At the other end of the spectrum are states such as North Korea,Iran and Syria who think the treaty is an attempt to restrict their arms imports.

As India is a major importer of arms,New Delhi too was apprehensive about the treaty becoming another arms control measure,which was why India abstained from voting in 2006 when a draft resolution on “Towards an Arms Trade Treaty” was tabled at the UN General Assembly. Throughout the process,some elements remained central to India’s argument: illicit trafficking of SALW to non-state actors,right to self-defence,national-level implementation of the treaty,and universal acceptance of the treaty.

Faced with challenges from terrorism to left-wing extremism,sustained by the illicit supply of SALW,it is natural for India to strongly seek an address of illicit weapon transfers to non-state actors in the ATT.

Since India’s security concerns will force it to import and manufacture weapons,it would not prefer a treaty that is too intrusive. Therefore,Delhi has taken a stance against stringent notification and verification procedures that could prove to be constraints on its defence needs. It is also important for India to see to it that the treaty does not harm its nascent defence industry.

India had also sought a better balance of responsibilities between exporting and importing countries. For instance,exporters should also have a responsibility to curb illicit supply of arms to non-state actors.

Since many countries,including India,have domestic laws regarding arms trade,Delhi believes that the treaty should have clauses that could be implemented at the national level. In a statement at the conference,India said,“National implementation informed by international responsibility can be the bedrock of this process.” This position has been taken by many countries,including the US,Russia and even China.

China,in particular,has upheld the right of the state to secure its national interest and object to strict rules of reporting that could prove to be intrusive. China has categorically mentioned that “the Treaty shall not be misused for political purposes to interfere with the normal arms trade and internal affairs of any state”,and that the treaty should “address the legitimate interests of states and the humanitarian concerns in a balanced manner.”

A major aspect of the Indian argument has been that the treaty should emerge from consensus. The ATT being an instrument impacting many countries,it is important for it to come into being through consensus. A treaty without support from major exporting and importing countries would undermine its very purpose.

However,it is possible that the treaty could be put for voting during the UNGA meeting and passed by a two-thirds majority. As and when the ATT is put to vote,the above mentioned issues are likely to determine India’s stance. The inconclusive conference has given India more time to closely analyse the draft and see to it that all of its legitimate concerns are adequately addressed.

Rahul Prakash is junior fellow at Observer Research Foundation,Delhi

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