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Five ways that civil society organisations can contribute to the Arms Trade Treaty

6th September 2019

Last week, Transparency International Defence & Security (TI-DS) attended the Fifth Annual Conference of States Parties (CSP5) to The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), where delegations of the 104 signatories gathered to review the status of the Treaty and set the agenda for the year ahead. 

Five years since the introduction of the Arms Trade Treaty, there are plenty of reasons for gloom. This year’s Conference focused on two topics in particular: diversion and gender-based violence. Despite being covered under the ATT – articles 7 and 11 respectively – states have been struggling to address these illicit arms flows and reduce gender-based violence. Any advances made by new states ratifying the treaty – most recently Canada and Botswana – have been countered by the lack of representation from some of the world’s largest arms exporters such as Russia, China and now the US, which withdrew its signature from the treaty.

Meanwhile transfers of weapons continue to increase, and implementation challenges are becoming obvious. However, at this point the question is not one of giving up, but rather one of what can we do to make the Treaty more effective?

The CSP is open to civil society, encouraging participation in side events and lively debates. Only one panel discussion was restricted to state signatories – out of 20 in total. While this shows the role and importance of civil society participation in the ATT process, more can be done to foster this cooperation during the rest of the year.

TI-DS has an important contribution to make to this movement. By working together with Transparency International’s national chapters and other local partners we can do more to support national adoption and implementation strategies.

What does that mean in practice? Here are five learnings from the CSP5 that point the way:

1. Provide the evidence-base for arms control decisions

When deciding whether to approve an arms export application, state licensing bodies must consider a wide range of factors about the importing country – from the internal security situation to regional stability and risk of diversion from the stated end-user. Most states will assess these factors through an in-depth risk assessment of the viability of the export, using both classified and open source information.

Research reports and studies conducted by civil society can provide valuable sources of information for states. TI’s Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index (GI) provides an analysis of the corruption risks within the defence establishments of 90 countries worldwide. Government export control agencies can use this data to consider the risk of corruption in importing countries to inform the likelihood of diversion or misuse of weapons.

2. Raise awareness of the ATT and its relevance to national governments

As organisations with a particular national, regional or thematic focus, civil society organisations (CSO) are well-placed to provide expert insight into the arms control issues facing a country. In states that have not yet adopted the ATT – or are working towards ratifying it – CSOs can work with government agencies, industry and think tanks to facilitate a national debate on the importance and benefits of compliance with the treaty. They can build coalitions of interested parties to work towards a common goal, as shown by the continued contribution made by the Control Arms Coalition.

Moreover, civil society – unlike governments, industry or think tanks – often have the grassroots networks and community buy-in needed to build pressure and hold states to account for their promises when it comes to international obligations such as the ATT.

3. Assist parliaments and governments in implementing the treaty

CSOs working on arms control issues are in general able to develop a broader knowledge base than parliamentarians and other actors whose day jobs only touch upon this complex topic. The potential for cooperation between the two was illustrated by an example presented at this year’s conference which highlighted the role of the Small Arms Survey NGO, who assisted Japan by conducting a gap analysis of its ATT implementation progress.

From giving evidence to a parliamentary committee to providing MPs with research to inform parliamentary questions, CSOs can work directly with concerned parliamentarians to maintain the political will and internal pressure needed to support proper implementation of the treaty.

4. Monitor ATT progress and violations

As third-party stakeholders, CSOs are often able to raise and address controversial topics.

CSOs working in-country may encounter evidence of a violation of treaty obligations and report it to the government. Many CSOs also have the ability and expertise to synthesise these cases into national and regional trends, thereby providing governments with a tool to develop mitigation strategies and improve their progress in implementing the ATT. 

By providing a solid evidence base with clear policy recommendations, CSOs can help states reflect on the progress they have made and highlight areas that need strengthening.

5. Achieve universalisation through improved reporting and transparency

The substantial differences in the way that states submit their ATT reporting obligations constitute a barrier to universalisation. Although 83 per cent of states used the reporting template, some are still submitted incomplete or in non-readable format or indeed in a completely different format that is difficult to consolidate. On top of this, 25 per cent of states failed to submit an annual report at all.

CSOs can work with national governments and industry to promote transparency and common reporting standards, which in turn allows for comparability and more effective implementation of treaty obligations.

The future of the ATT may be uncertain, but states can’t do it alone and nor should they. Civil society can help national governments bridge the gap between policy and practice by providing hands-on insight and analysis into arms control issues worldwide.

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