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Discussion progresses, doors closed to NGOs

It is now the beginning of the second week of the first Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). At this stage it is possible to provide a bit of a snapshot of the progress of discussions. But first, a few reflections on a wayward turn.

Before this PrepCom began, it was unclear whether, and in what form, NGOs would be able to participate. NGOs are typically allowed access to negotiations, particularly in cases such as the ATT, which is mandated to be developed in an open and transparent manner. It seemed that this would be the case in the beginning of last week, when a resolution was agreed upon that gave such access to NGOs.

Control Arms
Shut out and silenced: campaigners hand out material following the Chairman's decision to exclude NGOs from the ATT talks at the United Nations in New York.

We were therefore shocked when, at the end of the session on Thursday, it was announced that six of the substantive sessions at the PrepCom are to be closed to NGOs.

This development is simply unacceptable. It is utterly irreconcilable for negotiations that are meant to be creating transparency in the arms trade to be conducted behind closed doors. NGOs play an important role in holding states accountable and this simply isn’t possible if we don’t have access to the room.

The decision also shows great contempt for the humanitarian objectives of the ATT. As NGOs have laboured for years towards creating a strong, robust and legally-binding ATT that will save countless lives and reduce the incidence and impacts of armed violence and conflict, the choice to shut us out – made for reasons of political expediency – seriously threatens to compromise this goal. The voices of NGOs are the voices of the victims of armed violence. Without hearing these viewpoints, and safe in the knowledge that they won't be held accountable for their words and actions, states may fail to achieve the ATT that is so badly needed.

We will fight against this decision in every way we can, but we won’t let it distract from our true purpose here in New York.

For the rest of this week we will continue to advocate strongly for the most comprehensive and robust Arms Trade Treaty possible; too much is at stake and failure simply is not an option.

As this PrepCom is effectively ‘pre-negotiations’, the substance and form of discussions are quite different from what is expected in formal negotiations. The past week was constituted largely of states making interventions on aspects of the ATT that they consider important, broken down into two broad areas: elements and principles.

Elements are the components of a future treaty that will be necessary for it to do its job. When listed in order, the elements look roughly like a contents page for the treaty. Principles, on the other hand, are basically the ideas and foundations upon which the treaty is based – the existing international law that the treaty is consolidating and the reasons why the treaty is needed.

This is partly why this PrepCom is so important; it is only the elements and principles that states talk about now that will end up in the final ATT. The rules of procedure for the ATT negotiations are based on consensus: states must be unanimous in their decisions, so every state effectively has a veto power. As negotiations continue and compromises are made, certain aspects of the ATT will be weakened and this is why we need all elements and principles to be on the table at this early stage.

As I mentioned in the last blog, NGOs have been campaigning for a long time to get to this stage. If it wasn’t for NGOs and the help of a few supportive states, this process would not be happening. But aside from campaigning, NGOs have also been researching. As we have progressed into more and more detailed discussions on the ATT at a technical and theoretical level, a growing body of research and expertise has been developed by NGOs, and it is this resource that a large number of states are drawing upon in their statements.