A year ago states decided, through a UN General Assembly resolution, to pursue"a comprehensive, legally binding instrument establishing common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms."[i] At the same time they asked the Secretary-General to survey states for their views on the feasibility of such an Arms Trade Treaty.

The Secretary-General has now reported. The response rate was unusually high, more than 90 countries (153 voted for the resolution), and more than 90 percent of those argued that the feasibility of a treaty is evidenced by the variety of initiatives and voluntary arrangements that already exist at sectoral, multilateral, regional and sub-regional levels. Transparency was identified as essential to making control measures effective and states are looking to the forthcoming study by a Group of Governmental Experts (which will report in the autumn of 2008) to explore, among other issues, reporting procedures, related measures to verify compliance, and assistance to states in building national capacity to manage transfer controls.

It is clear that an Arms Trade Treaty will include mandatory disclosure of exports and imports to an international registry of transfers - similar to the current UN Register of Conventional Arms,[ii]except that the expected register will not be voluntary and will include all conventional arms, including small arms. In effect, under a Treaty each state party will become accountable to all others, with opportunities for all parties to the treaty to challenge each other on particular transfers deemed not to be in compliance.

Canada's annual report on the Export of Military Goods, introduced in 1991, goes some way toward meeting likely transparency requirements - although, current reporting is certainly not a model of timeliness, the last report having been released in late 2003 reporting on 2002 exports.[iii]The report, when it is available, is extensive compared to the national reports of many countries (notwithstanding its major gap in excluding exports to the US - which is another story for another time). However, a major objective of the Treaty will be to prevent arms sales when there is a risk that they will be used in the violation of human rights, but any reliable assessment of such a risk requires considerable detail on the particular commodities sold and on the likely user - information that is not available under current reporting.

For example, the report on 2002 lists the sale of a surveillance camera system to Colombia (for $600,000) but offers no details of the context in which it is to be used and by whom. Thus there is no basis for assessing the level of risk that it will contribute to human rights violations. Aircraft have a variety of roles and functions, and since Canada is a supplier of aircraft and of components for foreign aircraft manufactures, assessments of their likely impact on human rights requires clear information on the kind of aircraft involved and their users and likely uses. The sale of $30 million in helicopters and aircraft parts to Saudi Arabia, along with $20 million in armoured vehicles, is reported without details about the end-user - but even without that, these sales, part of a series of multiyear contracts, ought to be setting off alarm bells on multiple levels.

Canada's response to the Secretary-General's survey[iv]affirms the centrality of transparency: "We believe that an Arms Trade Treaty will provide a transparent framework of universally applicable standards for States to follow" (para 2). Furthermore, "Canada supports inclusion of a requirement that States share information relating to the transfers that they approve or reject. A mechanism will be needed to ensure that this information is made available to all States" (para 18).

The government's recognition of the centrality of transparency to accountability and restraint is welcome. That in turn will require the addition of considerable detail to Canadian reporting and, especially, a measure of timeliness. Reporting four years after the fact, the current pattern, may be of interest to historians but is of little use to arms controllers. Under an Arms Trade Treaty timely reporting will be the central means by which national decision-making on military exports can be shaped and constrained by agreed standards, peer scrutiny, and legal challenges - all measures to help make international human security the essential test of responsible military exports.


[i] United Nations General Assembly.2006b. Towards an arms trade treaty: establishing common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms.UN General Assembly Resolution A/Res/61/89, December 18.Available athttp://daccessdds.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N06/499/77/PDF/N0649977.pdf?OpenElement.

See the Nov 1/06 posting here (newactio).

[ii] http://disarmament.un.org/cab/register.html

[iii] Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. 2003. Export of Military Goods from Canada: Annual Report 2002, December. http://www.dfait-maeci.gc.ca/eicb/military/miliexport02-en.asp.

[iv] Canada's views on ATT, Submitted Autumn '07:

http://disarmament.un.org/UNODA_Web_Docs/CAB/ATT/Canada.pdf

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