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International Arms Trade Treaty: Update

As the UN failed to pass the treaty, we get an update on the situation from Anna McDonald, the Head of Arms Control for Oxfam

On Friday we reported that negotiations on the International Arms Trade Treaty – a bill to regulate the $60 billion global arms trade – were about to end. Not long after we learnt that UN member states had failed to reach an agreement.

While a small collection of states, including Syria, North Korea, Iran, Egypt and Algeria, have consistently opposed arms control throughout the negotiations, it was the United States that ended this round. Following an announcement from the White House that it needed more time to consider the proposed treaty, Russia, Cuba and Venezuela quickly followed suit.

Ninety countries in all, including all European Union members and states from Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa, signed the treaty saying they were "disappointed but... not discouraged" by the setback.

The conference chairman, Roberto Garcia Moritan, says that the General Assembly has several options for moving forward to be considered over the summer. Further negotiations will take place in September. Despite the failure to reach agreement at this point in time, Mr Moritan said "we certainly are going to have a treaty in 2012".

All 193 UN member states had to approve the bill but the next session's treaty will no longer need the consensus of all the states - only a two thirds majority will see the bill passed.  

We spoke to Anna McDonald, the Head of Arms Control for Oxfam, who has been in New York at the UN headquarters working on the treaty with diplomats from across the world.

Dazed Digital: Hi Anna, so what went wrong on Friday?
Anna McDonald:
On Thursday night it was widely expected that the treaty would be agreed by all the states that were part of the negotiations and then on Friday morning the US essentially blocked the treaty going through using a procedural challenge to give them more time to negotiate, which lead to the collapse of the talks.

DD: So was it solely America’s fault, we read that others had requested more time?
Anna McDonald:
Once the US blocked they were followed by Cuba and Venezuela. It was widely expected that China were going to block. But they let it go through. It was really disappointing as a lot of the concessions that were made in the draft treaty were at the insistence of the US and we’ve been negotiating hard throughout the month and it appears to have been a White House decision at the last minute which is something we’re critical of given the importance of the treaty.

DD: What do you think America has to fear from a treaty of this kind?
Anna McDonald:
They don’t have anything to fear from it at all. There was a lot of domestic pressure within the US from pro-gun lobby groups such as the National Rifle Association, they argued that the treaty would effect the rights of US gun owners. But it’s just nonsense, it’s a treaty about International transfers and couldn’t have affected US gun owners at all. The fact it’s in an election year and the political pressure the NRA can put on the administration seems to have led to the US not wanting to be seen to be supporting it which is poor given that they know what it’s really about.

DD: Has the treaty been weakened by what’s happened over the last few days? Have concessions been made that now can’t be reversed in the next sitting in October?
Anna McDonald:
It’s more about banking the good stuff we’ve achieved and building on them more. We were critical as other states were of the provisions around and including ammunition, which were weaker than we wanted to see. The African states wanted the provisions much stronger too. There was a clause in there which allowed existing defence co-operation contracts to continue and we were very concerned that would have meant that Russian contracts with Syria could be used as an argument to continue those supplies. So we were pushing as were other supportive states to close those loopholes and the anticipation on the Friday would be that you would see some last minute negotiations around those final changes and their wording.

DD: What is Oxfam’s position on weapons being transported to the FSA and other rebels in Syria from the west and their allies? Will the treaty stop action like this from happening in the future?
Anna McDonald:
Our position is that any arms transfer needs to assessed against the likelihood of human rights abuses or violations of humanitarian law. So we’re not taking a position against any particular group or government that these are going to, it’s more that every arms transfer has to have that assessment no matter who the end user is.

Text by Sean Glynn
Photos by Andrew Kelly