Scrutiny of Arms Export Controls (2011): UK Strategic Export Controls Annual Report 2009, Quarterly Reports for 2010, licensing policy and review of export control legislation - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

7  The UK Government and the Arms Trade Treaty

88. The progress towards an international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) was of interest to our predecessor Committees. The first two preparatory committees (PrepComs), which looked at recommendations to the Diplomatic Conference on the contents of the treaty, took place from 12-23 July 2010. The dates of the subsequent PrepComs are: 28 February - 4 March 2011 and 11-15 July 2011. The four-week long final Diplomatic Conference will be in 2012. During our inquiry, we considered several aspects of the ATT negotiations and the particular concerns raised by the NGOs and the industry.[142]

The UK Government's role in negotiations

89. Our predecessor Committees commended the last Government for their support of an ATT and the leadership role played by the UK over a number of years.[143] However, in evidence from the NGOs we heard that the Coalition Government appeared to have stopped performing that leadership role. Mr Martin Butcher of Oxfam said:

    It does seem that the new Government have pulled back somewhat. There is a difference in positioning on the ATT, and the leadership role appears to be waning. There is a reluctance to commit, for example, to specific aspects of treaty content. In the strategic defence and security review, and in recent responses to parliamentary questions, the Government have said that they are supportive of the ATT, but not that they are leading. During the July PrepComs, some states that looked to the UK for leadership over the past few years have been concerned that in contrast to previous ATT discussions within the UN, the UK has been taking a back seat. It was very noticeable, for example, at the first committee that the UK was very reluctant to make a statement at all. There is an international perception that the UK is stepping back from leadership. Because the leadership has been so marked over the past four years, that shift is being interpreted as a change in the level of support for the treaty.[144]

Mr Rob Parker of Saferworld, added: addition to the lower profile, the content of the [UK's] statements is also less around the need for the treaty to be based on human rights and humanitarian issues and perhaps more hinting at the idea that it's a trade agreement, as opposed to something more.[145]

90. Mr Martin Butcher of Oxfam also feared an absence of leadership of the UK's negotiating team if the Geneva-based post of Ambassador for Multilateral Arms Control and Disarmament was removed. He said:

    We do have significant concerns; there seems to be a strong possibility that when Ambassador Duncan leaves his role at some point in the first half of next year [2011], he won't be replaced, and that role of arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament ambassador will be at least suspended, if not done away with. We have strong concerns that that would lead to a lack of co-ordination of British policy and a lack of ability to input strongly into the process.[146]

91. The NGOs also questioned the adequacy of the level of specialist resources being deployed during the negotiations and of the instructions given to the relevant personnel. Mr Rob Parker of Saferworld suggested the UK had reduced its support for the ATT: might also be a case of conflicting priorities. At crucial points in the process, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty was running at a similar time. Some of the personnel were pulled in different directions.[147]


    I also wonder if it's an issue of prioritisation, in terms of the resources put into thinking through what's coming up. It feels that in some respects, the UK Government is on the back foot as opposed to the front foot in terms of the issue of consensus, thinking through scenarios of how to build support among reluctant states and actually taking this issue by the scruff of the neck, if you like, and being proactive as opposed to reacting to things.[148]

92. The NGOs also expressed concern about the tight timescale for the preparatory stage, and the intensive, specialist resources this would require of the UK's negotiating team.[149] They told us that the timescale was unlikely to "slip," but rather the "quality of the product" might suffer.[150] Mr Rob Parker of Saferworld said:

    Our concern is that unless progressive states, like the UK, start putting the time into developing draft treaty text and applying that at the preparatory committees over the next year or so, very soon the negotiating conference is going to be upon us and there will be little chance of getting something with teeth at that conference. That's where the leadership role comes back in, because we would very much welcome stronger leadership on the drafting of treaty text, the running through of scenarios and ideas, and producing a strategy on how to bring on board some of the more reluctant states in the very short time that we have.[151]

93. The FCO Minister, Mr Alistair Burt, in a letter to the Chair of 10 February 2011 stated:

    The Government is fully committed to securing a robust and effective Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) and hence is keen to ensure sufficient resources are in place for the negotiation of the Treaty. I can confirm that multilateral arms control and disarmament continue to be a high priority for FCO.

    Following an internal reorganisation to our multilateral diplomatic posts in Switzerland, the responsibilities currently held by the Ambassador for Multilateral Arms Control and Disarmament have been redistributed to ensure that FCO resources are best placed to service both Geneva and non-Geneva based work. When the current ambassador's term ends in July 2011, we will continue to retain a dedicated ambassador for the arms control and disarmament work that takes place in Geneva via the post of UK Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament. However we have decided that leadership of the UK delegation to the ATT negotiations, which take place elsewhere, should revert to the head of Counter Proliferation Department at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London who will report to me as the Minister with lead responsibility. Hence I can confirm that leadership of ATT work will continue at the same level of seniority.

    We will also continue to operate as a cross- government team under an FCO lead, including experts from BIS, MOD, DFID and others. This cross government team is proactively engaged in our efforts to achieve a robust and effective ATT, and continues to consult with, and draw in expertise from, NGOs and industry. This consultation, which is at both a strategic and technical level, greatly adds value to UK efforts on ATT by enabling us to benefit from the expertise of others outside government, and to work in a co-ordinated way as we approach the critical UN Negotiating Conference on an ATT in 2012.[152]

94. We conclude that the Government's statement that it is fully committed to securing a robust and effective Arms Trade Treaty is to be welcomed. We look to the Government to deliver on its commitment.

A strong ATT or one based on consensus?

95. Our predecessor Committees considered the relative merits of a strong ATT and one which obtained the widest possible support.[153] In its 2010 report, our predecessor Committees noted that finding a consensus would be difficult.[154] In written evidence to this inquiry, the NGOs said:

—  Comprehensive scope: cover all types of weapons transfer, and all types of conventional arms, ammunition, parts and components. It is of great concern that the US is currently opposed to the inclusion of ammunition.

—  Robust criteria. the parameters of an ATT must include tough criteria around international human rights and humanitarian law and socio-economic development, which need to be translated into strong text ("a transfer shall not be authorised if...").

Some states are already arguing for language ("take into account") which would render these criteria extremely weak.

—  A transparent and effective Implementation mechanism.[155]

96. Mr Sprague of Amnesty told us the UK and US Governments differed on the scope of the Treaty. He said that the NGOs "remain concerned that the US will want to remove ammunition from the scope of the arms trade treaty..." whereas the UK position was still in favour of including ammunition in the treaty.[156]

97. Transparency International (TI) said there was the need for an independent anti-corruption mechanism in any ATT. TI added:

    without anti-corruption provisions in the ATT, bringing arms trading under closer control will create new incentives and opportunities for those who, either as suppliers or customers, would want to avoid or circumvent those proper controls. It will, in short, offer new opportunities for corruption.[157]

98. TI agreed that "a strong anti-corruption provision in the ATT would not create additional burdens for UK industry" as existing laws, including the new Bribery Act 2010, already applied to the UK arms industry:

    A strong anti-corruption mechanism in the ATT will encourage other exporting countries to put in place similar measurements and legislations, ultimately creating a level playing field for UK firms who may currently be somewhat disadvantaged by other countries.[158]

99. At the first two PrepComs, the need for an anti-corruption mechanism was emphasised by many participants, including the EU, and 'corruption' was included in the Chair's Draft Paper.[159] TI argues that a robust ATT would have 'corruption' as a stand-alone criterion/parameter as the "inclusion of corruption within only one parameter risks ignoring the important cross-cutting role that corruption plays..."[160] As regards the tension between a strong and a consensus-based treaty, Mr Rob Parker of Saferworld said "I think we would agree that if everyone is happy to sign up to it, the chances are it's not really going to take us much further."[161]The previous Government had been committed to a "robust" ATT, even at the price of it not being consensus-based. For example, in its Response to our predecessor Committees' 2009 Report, the Government agreed priority should be given to securing the strongest possible treaty rather than one based on consensus.[162]

100. Our predecessor Committees made the same recommendation in their 2010 report. However, in its response to that report, the Coalition Government appeared to announce a shift in policy:

    As for the Committee's conclusion, the Government will continue to strive for consensus to ensure that the correct balance is struck between the strongest possible treaty and the widest participation of states.[163]

101. In oral evidence before us, the FCO Minister, Mr Alistair Burt, discussed the balance further, saying he considered a "robust" treaty to be one that included key players:

    If by consensus we mean that we want to ensure that it is a robust treaty because the key players are a part of it, that might in a way give you a sense, Mr Gapes, of squaring the difference. To have a treaty that doesn't have the major players involved and part of it will negate its value and all the work that's been done. Equally, to have something that isn't worth the paper it's written on won't do the job...

    ...I think at present, our position that we should strive to get both a robust and a consensual treaty is a good one. I don't think we've yet reached the point of saying, "We now have to decide between these two objectives," but certainly, if the treaty lacks the support of key and important players, then I'm not sure that our work won't have been in vain.[164]

102. We conclude that the Government seems to have adopted a different policy from its predecessor; appearing to be prepared to weaken the Arms Trade Treaty in order to try to ensure that key arms exporting countries become signatories. We recommend that the Government continues to try to achieve the strongest possible Treaty, including exports of ammunition, with the maximum number of key countries including the United States, as signatories, but should not adopt a strict consensus or lowest common denominator approach which is likely to result in an Arms Trade Treaty being ineffectual.

103. We further recommend that the Government, in its response to this report, sets out its policy on including anti-corruption provisions in the Arms Trade Treaty with details of the provisions it would wish to see incorporated.

142   See for example Q47 of EGAD Written Evidence Back

143   E.g. HC (2008-09) 178, para 122 Back

144   Q 16 Back

145   Q 17 Back

146   Q 18 Back

147   Q 17 Back

148   Q 18 Back

149   Q 35. See also Scrutiny of Arms Export Controls (2010), Session 2009-10, HC 202, p44. Back

150   Q 20 Back

151   Q 20 Back

152   Ev 41 Back

153   For example, see CAEC, Scrutiny of Arms Export Controls (2010), Session 2009-10, HC 202 pp42-44; and CAEC, Scrutiny of Arms Export Controls (2009), Session 2008-09, HC 178 pp43-44.  Back

154   CAEC, Scrutiny of Arms Export Controls (2010), Session 2009-10, HC 202 p43 Back

155   Ev 49 Back

156   Q 155 Back

157   Ev 46 Back

158   Ev 46 Back

159   Ev 46 Back

160   Ev 47 Back

161   Q 20 Back

162   HC (2008-09) HC 178, para 122; Committees on Arms Export Controls, Government Response to Committee Report, Scrutiny of Arms Exports Controls (2009) Cm7698, p10 Back

163   Committees on Arms Export Controls, Government Response to Committee Report, Scrutiny of Arms Exports Controls (2008).Cm 7938, p11. Back

164   Q 132 Back

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Prepared 5 April 2011