Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 20:37 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 20:37 | SYDNEY

A big year for conventional arms control

3 May 2012 11:16

Stephanie Koorey is an Adjunct Research Associate at the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University.

This is a big year for fans of conventional arms control. Admittedly, there aren't many of us, which is a shame because it's a topic that deserves more attention.

While arms control usually means all things nuclear, there are crankings and grindings in the UN Programme of Action To Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons In All Its Aspects (UN PoA), and a sprightly change in pace for the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). These should be catching the eye of the broader scholarly and foreign policy world because it's terrifically unusual to have so much movement on conventional arms control.

In February and March, both the ATT and UN PoA held Preparatory Committees. Hot air and legalese bluster abounded, but there were some fairly concrete outcomes, and the ATT Chair, Ambassador Roberto Moritan of Argentina, recently did the diplomatic rounds in Canberra. If, as Ambassador Moritan hopes, the ATT is given its head and breaks into a steady canter during its planned four weeks of treaty negotiations from 2-27 July, it will be the first binding international treaty governing all conventional arms. 

Until that occurs, conventional weapons – everything from handguns to fighter jets – will continue to be transferred with no international law governing their movements. Conventional arms are legal yet not particularly transparent. They are only illegal under particular circumstances - if the end user is under an arms embargo, or when a particular type of weapon, such as anti-personnel land-mines, has been banned. It's up to national export controls and the good sense and grace of the importer and exporter to make sure the transfer is legal. If they feel inclined, the transfer can be voluntarily recorded by the UN through its Register of Conventional Arms. 

Mostly, we tend to only notice conventional arms by proxy, often in reference to the military capabilities of a declared or possible adversary. We also get flurries of interest in conventional weapons when they are blatantly misused, such as by the security forces in Syria, or when large numbers of civilians obtain weaponry to use against the security forces, as was witnessed in the 2011 Libyan civil war. All such transfers were legal at the time, sold to a legitimate government for legitimate UN Charter-endorsed right to territorial self defence.

What the proposed ATT seeks to do isn't really arms control; it's not seeking to ban or remove any categories of weapon, and it is arguable that it is even 'restraint', which is what Hedley Bull saw arms control as being. Nor is it a disarmament treaty – no weapons will be collected and destroyed. It isn't even a trade treaty – it will not concern itself with tariffs, quotas or other economic matters.

The ATT is really arms transfer management: don't sell weapons where there is a risk they are likely to be destabilising; don't sell to governments who are likely to misuse such weapons, including for human rights abuses or genocides; don't sell to governments who really can't afford them and who should be spending more on economic development rather than flashy military hardware; don't sell to terrorists and don't sell if they are likely to be 'diverted' to or for any of the above. 

It's almost credible, and certainly laudable, yet I have been profoundly cynical about the viability of such a treaty since it started to gain traction in the late 2000s. But for some reason it has become a good idea with a lot of support, including, surprisingly, from the major arms exporting countries. The US has stated its support, Russia has been called 'a constructive partner' and from the start the UK was a major enthusiast, closely followed by eastern and western European, as well as developing world.

Why are they supporting it? Because in many ways it will change very little. Weapons transferred to legitimate sovereign governments not under embargo or which do not blatantly transgress the criteria above will continue to be transferred, including to governments like Assad's Syria and Qadhafi's Libya. The misuse weapons are put to are usually only apparent after the transfer. If it were in place today, the government of Syria would be in violation of such a treaty, but only after it has become apparent the weaponry is being used for internal repression.

Australia already has high standards and practices over its arms exports (minimal) and its arms imports (mostly from the US), and Australia would be hard pushed to meet any of the treaty violation criteria as listed above. For Australia, then, hardly anything will change. What the proposed treaty will do is give the wider international community a legal means by which to hold clear violators accountable.

Most importantly, it is a considerable normative development, sending the signal that it is not appropriate or tolerable that weaponry – whose original and enduring purpose is the defence of the state – be used against civilians, or be used to bolster unpopular elites. Weaponry should be used to uphold national security, and not be used for maintaining regime security, violate human security or undermine international peace and security.

Too little too late for those in Syria, one could argue, but the potential value of this treaty should not be discounted; it may yet contribute to socially and fiscally responsible government, and it could just avert future bloodbaths.

Admittedly, this is a tall order. The mitigation of armed violence and the promotion of responsible weapons use and transfer has been what the UN PoA has been struggling with for over a decade. The well-meaning but non-binding PoA suffers from unfortunate policy ambiguity. For example, while the transfer of small arms across borders between gunrunners, criminals, and those under embargo is widely considered illicit, is it always illicit to arm non-state actors?

The UN PoA has not ever been clear on this, and the Arab uprisings have again been instructive, showing that sometimes we like to keep that option open because armed groups can be more appealing than dictators. In addition, recreational shooting associations keep are keen on the PoA not becoming so intrusive as to cripple their sport.

Given the PoA's ambiguity, its value is again mostly normative. The August-September Second Review Conference is unlikely to break new ground, but it will ensure that small arms control (again, read management) to mitigate armed violence and conflict, which are core to the UN Charter, will continue.

There is, however, a niggling 'Empire Strikes Back' feel at work here; can developing countries, particularly small ones, allocate what is needed to two similar processes, and can disarmament NGOs that have been so vocal in developing innovative arms control measures allocate time and resources to both initiatives? Well-resourced countries could be seen to be overburdening the capacities of small states.

Photo by Flickr user United Nations Photo.