Swiss regret arms trade treaty impasse

North Korea was one of the three countries which blocked consensus Keystone

At the conclusion of a ten-day United Nations conference in New York, the Swiss delegation has said it “deeply regrets” the failure to adopt a draft text of the global arms trade treaty (ATT), blocked by Iran, North Korea and Syria.

This content was published on March 29, 2013 - 12:00
Rita Emch,, New York

A first round of negotiations failed last July, after the big arms exporters US, Russia and China had said they wanted more time to consider all aspects of the treaty. In December, the General Assembly of the UN decided to organise a final round of talks, which came to an end on Thursday.

Some 2,000 representatives of governments, international and regional organisations and civil society had gathered in New York since March 18 to hammer out the details of what was seen as the most important initiative ever regarding conventional arms regulation within the UN.

The treaty would – for the first time ever – set international standards for the sale of conventional weapons, tie trade to respect for human rights, the prevention of war crimes and the protection of civilians. Every year more than 500'000 people fall victim to armed conflicts and armed violence.

"Switzerland deeply regrets that we were not able to achieve consensus," Erwin Bollinger, head of the export control and sanctions unit in the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco), who led the Swiss delegation in New York, told

Dashed hopes

Hopes were pretty high on Thursday morning that the delegations of the 193 UN member states would adopt the draft ATT text. But Iran, North Korea and Syria blocked the consensus necessary to pass the text, arguing that the draft was unbalanced – in favor of exporter countries to the detriment of importers, among other things.

In the name of a group of countries including the US, Kenya then announced that a letter with a draft resolution would be sent to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, asking him to bring the treaty to the General Assembly for adoption as soon as possible. Switzerland supports this move as well and signed the letter.

The president of the conference, Australian Ambassador Peter Woolcott, will present his report to the General Assembly on April 2.

"Adopting the treaty by consensus would have sent a stronger political signal than a vote in the General Assembly," said Bollinger, who is convinced that the draft text will easily reach a majority.

"Apart from that, the final draft text is much better than what we had last July. Obviously, compromises were made, Switzerland would have liked to see more in certain aspects. But this draft brings efficient regulation of the international arms trade that is supported by the vast majority of the UN member states."

One could say the conference ended in failure, but success was just postponed temporarily, Bollinger said.

Among the improvements Bollinger listed the inclusion of small arms and light weapons in the scope of the weapons covered by the treaty, also that parts and components are mentioned and there are some rules for ammunition and munitions, points Switzerland was intent on having included.

Long-running debate

There has never yet been an international treaty regulating the global arms trade. For many years, activists and some governments have been pushing for international regulations to try to keep illicit weapons out of the hands of terrorists, insurgent fighters and organised crime.

The treaty is to set standards for all cross-border transfers of conventional weapons. It would create binding requirements for states to review all trans-national arms deals to ensure weapons will not be used in human rights abuses, terrorism or violations of humanitarian law.

The treaty would not control the domestic use of weapons in any country, but would require all states to establish national regulations to control the transfer of conventional arms, parts and components and to regulate arms brokers.

It would prohibit states that ratify the treaty from transferring conventional weapons if they could promote acts of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes or violate arms embargoes.

The draft also requires parties to the treaty to take measures to prevent the diversion of conventional weapons to the illicit market.

From optimism to frustration

Ahead of the final meeting optimism had been growing that the treaty would become a reality, but some concerns had remained that Iran or other countries might object.

Iran and North Korea are under UN arms embargos over their nuclear programs, the Syrian government is participating in a conflict that has escalated into civil war.

Amnesty International said in a statement that all three countries "have abysmal human rights records — having even used arms against their own citizens."

After the consensus failed, many delegations expressed their disappointment that just three countries had been able to block this treaty aimed at curbing armed violence and death around the globe.

Non-governmental organisations also expressed their "deep frustration".

"The world has been held hostage by three states," said Anna Macdonald, head of arms control at Oxfam. "We have known all along that the consensus process was deeply flawed, and today we see it is actually dysfunctional."

She said: "Countries like Iran, Syria and North Korea should not be allowed to dictate to the rest of the world how the sale of weapons should be regulated."

Amnesty International called the action by the three countries a "deeply cynical move".

If adopted by the General Assembly, the treaty will need to be signed and ratified by at least 50 states before it can enter into force. It can later be revised, by a three-quarters majority if no consensus can be reached.

Switzerland and the arms trade treaty

Within the UN framework, Switzerland has been active in the process for an arms trade treaty since 2006.
It was a member of a group of experts from 28 countries that handled the preliminary work and later participated in all preparatory rounds of negotiations.
Based on an arms export legislation considered to be among the strictest in the world and due to its humanitarian tradition, Switzerland was able to play a "competent and credible" part in the negotiations.

That it received a seat as one of the vice-presidents in the bureau of the arms trade treaty conference in summer 2012 can be seen as recognition of the Swiss engagement.

During the round of negotations in March 2013, Switzerland was a member of the conference drafting committee for the final text.

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