Canada at the 9th Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty

June 15, 2023

By Kelsey Gallagher

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 44 Issue 2 Summer 2023

It has been 10 years since the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) opened for signature and almost four since Canada became a State Party. The Treaty has made major advances in controlling the international arms trade and establishing measures to mitigate the humanitarian impacts of unchecked weapons transfers.  

However, ATT States Parties, including Canada, can do more to extend the reach, impact, and effectiveness of the Treaty. The Ninth Conference of States Parties (CSP9) to the ATT, the annual multilateral forum at which States Parties meet to discuss the implementation of the Treaty, will take place in Geneva, Switzerland this August. Below are steps that State Parties – and Canada in particular – should take to ensure the ultimate effectiveness of the Conference and the Treaty.  

Achieving transparency

ATT States Parties are required to submit annual reports on major imports and exports of conventional arms to the ATT Secretariat. Since Canada acceded to the Treaty in 2019, it has maintained a positive reporting record, meeting all annual deadlines and making its reports public. Canada has rightly been lauded by civil society for consistency and transparency in its submission of these reports. Unfortunately, though, Canada is an exception to the rule.

The ATT Monitor is “the de facto international monitoring mechanism” for the ATT; it tracks States Parties’ compliance with ATT reporting obligations. (Disclosure: I am privileged to serve on its Editorial Advisory Committee.) According to its most recent report, the ATT Monitor 2022 Report, the rate at which States Parties are meeting those obligations continues to decline, as does the number of States Parties that make their reports available to the public.  Because transparency in arms transfers is a key pillar of the ATT, these downward trends are deeply worrying.

Building on its positive reporting record, Canada should help other States Parties meet their ATT reporting obligations. For a start, it could offer bilateral assistance to, and share know-how with, States Parties that have faced challenges in meeting their reporting obligations. Canada should also take an active role in the ATT’s Working Group on Transparency and Reporting; this could include taking on the role of Working Group Chair, which is currently vacant. Canada could also offer to remain as Chair for the cycle that ends with CSP10 in 2024.

Moving from process to progress

Over this past decade, more than half of the world’s states have joined the ATT, advancing accountability and control in the global arms trade. However, since the ATT entered into force in late 2014, the progress of work during each annual conference cycle has seemed to decelerate.

What is worse, during Working Group meetings and CSPs, States Parties have mostly engaged on the technicalities and procedural elements of Treaty implementation, rather than the Treaty’s core tenets, which are designed to mitigate the negative humanitarian impacts of irresponsible arms transfers. In effect, an emphasis on process has delayed progress.

States Parties should carve out some space for practical discussions on mitigating irresponsible arms transfers and advancing human security that include Treaty implementation at the national level and methods to maintain momentum on Treaty universalization. Canada and other states should also set positive examples by publicly discussing their arms imports and exports, including specific cases of problematic transfers, thereby rejecting growing stigmatization for doing so.

Stepping up to the plate

Although Canada has attended each CSP since it acceded to the ATT in 2019, its interventions have been less significant than those of many States Parties, some a fraction of Canada’s size and possessing far fewer resources.  

Although not without serious flaws, Canada’s arms control regime is one of the most robust in the world. Thus, Canada has much to contribute on topics such as effective Treaty implementation, the arms transfer decision-making process, and increasing transparency through annual reporting.

The Canadian delegation should communicate Canada’s positions and actively participate in discussions. It should provide real-time reactions to conference proceedings and, when possible, continue to offer contributions beyond pre-drafted statements.

Canada should also be an active contributor during CSP9 side events and enthusiastically engage in the Diversion Information Exchange Forum (DIEF), which met for the first time last year during CSP8. If Canada’s delegation to CSP9 were to include licensing officials with in-depth knowledge about Canada’s control system, it would be able to offer even more practical insights to other States Parties and stakeholders.

Maximizing Working Group effectiveness

Working Group sessions are held each February and May in advance of the CSP in August and are integral to advancing the CSP process. However, there is much to criticize about the current format and effectiveness of the Working Groups, as noted above. The Working Groups also now typically end early, in no small part because fewer states are taking the floor to make substantive contributions.  

Canada is among the States Parties that have correctly noted reduced engagement at Working Group meetings over time. With others, it has suggested that Working Groups be restructured so that business could be concluded in a shorter span of time. In February, Canada took a relatively hardline position on restructuring the meetings, simply recommending that the number of in-person days for Working Groups be halved.

Currently, the group of states that explicitly support a reduction in the number of Working Group days is roughly the same size as the group of states that oppose such a reduction. A third group consists of states caught somewhere in between. The ATT’s Management Committee is responding to this situation by exploring ways to optimize the workplan of the Working Groups. One option would reduce in-person Working Group meetings from two to one, with virtual or hybrid meetings added throughout the year.

Instead of just pushing for fewer Working Days, Canada should advocate for an outcomes-driven approach and call for a review of the possible effects that fewer working days could have on the functioning and effectiveness of the CSP cycle and the overall health of the ATT. Another suggested route would keep two Working Group sessions throughout the year, but reallocate time for small-group or regional meetings that maintain momentum in the Treaty process.

Industry: The theme of CSP9

The theme of each CSP cycle is picked by the President, who represents the State Party selected to preside over a particular annual cycle. CSP9’s President is the Republic of Korea (RoK), and the chosen theme is the role of industry in arms transfers.

While the focus on industry has been generally welcomed, the theme’s framing has been criticized by numerous States Parties and by civil society. The draft text of the RoK’s thematic paper, which outlines the direction of the current CSP cycle, focuses on what the ATT can do for industry, and not on how industry can help to achieve the goals of the ATT. As the Treaty’s objective is to mitigate the human cost of the arms trade, this thematic emphasis is clearly misplaced.

Canada’s views on the CSP9 theme are unclear; Canada’s delegation said little about industry at the February and May meetings of Working Groups. As a state with an established arms industry eager to export more product, Canada should push for an approach that focuses on how industry can help further the objectives of the ATT. A principled place to start would be advocating that industry incorporate into their operating principles the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which, since last year, explicitly extend to arms manufacturers.

Military aid to Ukraine

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, many ATT States Parties have provided Ukraine with huge quantities of military aid. These states need to remember that, despite the exceptionally brutal actions of the invader, exporting parties are still subject to ATT obligations, which include standardized risk assessments and diversion-mitigation measures.

Current data indicates that Canada is among the top 10 contributors of military aid to Ukraine (by value). The Canadian Department of National Defence (DND) now maintains a dedicated, transparent, and detailed list of all military exports to Ukraine since February 2022. And yet, unlike some of its allies and fellow ATT States Parties, Canada has said little at ATT gatherings about how it is controlling these transfers to meet its obligations under the ATT.

At CSP9, Canada should join other States Parties in providing details on military aid to Ukraine, such as information on Canada’s export authorization procedure, or achieving transparency in reporting these arms transfers. Canada should also describe any initiatives that DND is taking that relate to post-shipment monitoring of these exports.

The bottom line

When we examine current global conditions, marred by ongoing conflict and sharp increases in arms flows, we can only conclude that the international community needs more of – and from – the ATT. All States Parties, Canada included, must do all that can be done to meet the intentions of the Treaty’s creators and advance the goal of effectively regulating the international trade in conventional arms.

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