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Positions for the US in the Upcoming Arms Trade Treaty Conf.

Positions for the United States in the Upcoming Arms Trade Treaty Conference


Thomas Countryman
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation

Stimson Center

Washington, DC

April 16, 2012


Thank you very much, Linc. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the genesis of the Arms Trade Treaty and with the needs that it seeks to address. We have been doing our best to explain to people what is our approach. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to restate it for a larger audience today. And I’m grateful to the Stimson Center for giving us this opportunity.

As Ambassador Bloomfield noted, our bureau, International Security and Nonproliferation, already has a wide range of issues to deal with. Our efforts are concentrated on preventing the spread of nuclear, biological, chemical weapons and long-range missiles. We describe our work usually as keeping the world’s most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the world’s most dangerous people, or, alternatively, the world’s most dangerous toys out of the hands of the world’s most dangerous children.

To do this, we often work multilaterally through treaties such as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. We work in groups outside a treaty framework through collaborative arrangements like the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, a Russian-American initiative. And this includes also the various nonproliferation regimes, such as the Missile Control Technology Regime, the Australia Group, the Wassenaar Arrangement, and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. And we work bilaterally with states that share our goals of preventing the export of proliferation-sensitive material. Often, our work is then exemplified in a particular international gathering, and I think we’ve seen success, just in the last few months. Here I’d mention the Biological Weapons Review Conference in December, which took important steps forward, as well as, just three weeks ago, the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, which measured incredible progress by the world community in securing nuclear materials.

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Now, a part of my bureau’s portfolio that is generally less well known—although probably known to you here today—is our work to stop the proliferation of conventional weapons—anything from guns, to MANPADs air-to-surface missiles, all the way up to major weapons systems such as tanks, aircraft, missiles, and precision-guided munitions.

Around the world, in the Middle East, in Africa, the Caucasus, today in Syria and Southern Sudan, we see instability and protracted conflict. We see that conflicts can be fueled and prolonged by the continued flow of guns, planes, and other conventional weapons. You don’t have to have a political point of view to be concerned about the situation in Syria, in which old Syrian citizens are today being killed by new, Iranian bullets; to recognize the flow of weapons to areas of conflict is destabilizing for people on the ground and for the international community.

It is an old idea to seek to establish international guidelines for the national control of transfers of weapons that could impede the sale of such conventional weapons, both to outlaw states and to countries in crisis.

Recognizing that these world standards would be a step forward for stability, Secretary of State Clinton announced in October 2009 that the United States would participate in negotiations by consensus for an Arms Trade Treaty that would establish common international standards for the export and transfer of conventional weapons, standards that would help prevent the acquisition of arms by terrorists and criminals and by those who violate human rights or are subject to United Nations arms embargoes.

Now you are experienced enough to recognize the enormous task the Conference has set for itself: in one month, July of this year, to conclude an effective treaty in four short weeks of negotiation with potentially all 193 members of the United Nations. It’s a significant task. And it will involve negotiation and preparation– not just the imposition by any one country or any group of countries to present one document fully baked to be accepted by everyone else. So we have a lot of work in front of us, but we also have an outstanding team in Don Mahley, Ann Ganzer and Bill Malzahn.

What do we see as the objective of these negotiations, and what are the key elements of a successful Treaty? Well, these are the elements that the United States is keeping in mind in our approach:

First, this is not a disarmament negotiation; it is an arms trade regulation negotiation. International transfer of conventional armaments is a legitimate commercial and national security activity. Providing defense equipment to reliable partners in a responsible manner actually enhances security, stability, and promotion of the rule of law. We want any Treaty to make it more difficult and expensive to conduct illicit, illegal and destabilizing transfers of arms. But we do not want something that would make legitimate international arms trade more cumbersome than the hurdles United States exporters already face.

What we want is for other countries, which do not have an adequate level of control to agree to create, or improve effective national systems that will review, and approve or deny arms transfers under their national responsibility. In short, we would want the Treaty to elevate the international standard for export control of armaments to get it as close to the level that we have in the United States as we can get it. This would be a big step forward over the status quo, where many countries have excellent export control standards, but in other countries a rogue arms merchant can operate with impunity from the territory of a state that simply takes no notice of such activity.

Second, let me be clear once more on the question of domestic transfers. The Treaty must not touch on domestic transfers or ownership. The United States has received widespread international support for this oft-repeated position that only international transfers would come within the purview of this Treaty. We will not support outcomes that would in any way infringe on the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. We have received, in fact, letters from United States Senators opposing any Treaty restricting the Second Amendment. This has been the position of the Executive Branch since 2009, and it remains our position today. We will not support or agree to any Treaty that would do so. We believe that the international community can draft a Treaty on international arms transfers that would both increase international security and still protect sovereign rights of nations. That is the Treaty that the United States will pursue in July and for which we expect there will be widespread support.

Third, you know that this Administration has been working long and hard to complete an Export Control Reform that will change how a number of armaments-associated items are treated under United States’ export control laws and regulations. Now, that effort is completely independent of our negotiations on the ATT, though we have carefully ensured throughout our deliberations that the two efforts do not conflict with each other. One of the central points of our position in the July Conference is that the Treaty will correspond and be supportive of United States Export Control Reform.

We believe, and will strongly advocate, that implementation of any ATT is strictly a national process. There will not be international organizations, or regulators or regimes responsible for defining, determining, or deciding, what is an appropriate arms transfer for any country. Instead, there must be a senior-level and responsible national decision on any such export. We want the Treaty to tell each State Party what factors it must consider before authorizing a transfer – that is, criteria to keep in mind to review seriously and decide whether the transfer in question is responsible or not. But the Treaty should not tell each State Party how it must evaluate such a transfer—what bureaucratic process it needs to follow. That position is not only sensible for the sovereignty of states, but it is also consistent with the kind of bureaucratic streamlining we are seeking to finalize in our Export Control Reform.

The US has made our position on one other issue very clear in the preliminary discussions with international partners. Many states and organizations –many of them without major armaments industries or significant international arms trade – have sought to include ammunition in the scope of an ATT. The United States, which produces over seven billion rounds of ammunition a year, has resisted those efforts on the grounds that including ammunition is hugely impractical. We have asked our international partners, who proposed this inclusion, to lay out some specific means where such a fungible and consumable commodity could effectively and practically be accounted for and that would result in a degree of real control consistent with the goals of the Treaty. We are skeptical that there is such a proposal on the table or ready to be proposed, but we will remain open-minded in respecting the wishes of international parties and partners in studying such a proposal.

Many of you have already heard these positions of the United States at some earlier time in this process. If you’ve heard them before, you’ve just heard them again. They have not evolved, but I wanted to review them so you know that our national position going into the July Conference is consistent, it’s balanced and it has generated a good deal of understanding and support from key international partners who will also be in New York in July. We believe that these positions are exactly how an effective, practical Treaty can be adopted and can contribute to international security.

I don’t wish to minimize how difficult it can be to get a multilateral consensus on an actual text. Four weeks is a very short time to find acceptable language. On the other hand, as I said earlier, this is an arms trade regulation document, not a disarmament document, so there is no need for an extensive framework or extensive definitions to make it work. The outcome of the Conference ought to be a good, short document that spells out principles of what states must do in implementing an effective arms export control. And it should not require extensive documentation, or multiple annexes. For example, each State Party should have its own detailed list of what it controls by its export control regime – but we do not need an exhaustive, common universal list included in the Treaty Text.

Our point about national implementation also steers us in the right direction with regard to the criteria that must be considered before exporting conventional weapons. There are very few absolute bars to an arms transfer, given the competing principle of the right to self-defense. We do not see a role for international bodies to adjudicate national decisions or an absolute application of criteria that are not already obligatory under international law – such as a UN Security Council arms embargo. So we don’t see a need to try to do more than list principles, factors, criteria that each country must consider before it takes on a transfer, and which may result in a different decision made by the individual national authority.

We also expect to see in negotiations a great deal of international agreement that there should be assistance available to states that need it to help set up an effective mechanism for arms export control. By the way, we already do this. The Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, through its Export Control and Related Border Security Program (EXBS), has helped a number of countries already to draft exactly such legislation.

Nor does a control mechanism need be equally elaborate or identically defined in every state– after all, some countries do not export arms on a regular basis. There is, of course, the issue of unscrupulous brokers finding such a country to use as a place of business, and we would want to see provisions in the Treaty that seek to prevent that kind of exploitation. But part that problem is addressed if we have a near-universal Treaty where all the potential sources of arms are under the control of effective export regimes.

So let me be clear one more time about what the US hopes to see emerge, and what we are not naïve enough to expect.

We do not believe that this Conference, or any Treaty emerging from it, will result in the complete harmonization of arms transfers around the world. There are arms exporters who consciously decide to export arms to recipients that the United States would prefer not receive weapons. There are some arms exports that the US approves, after careful review in our process that other states in the world would prefer we not approve. These kinds of transfers, even with a universal ATT, would still be matters of national security, of national interest, and of bilateral diplomatic exchanges to seek to find mutual accommodations about our differing views of the world and the common interest of promoting regional security. An effective ATT could make the appropriate route for such diplomatic exchanges a little clearer, but it will not fundamentally change the nature of international politics nor can it by itself bring an end to the festering international and civil conflicts around the world.

There is a lot of work to do to get from where we are today to a successful Treaty at the end of July. But we have a clear vision of what that Treaty would look like, and believe this agreement would be an important addition to global security and stability.

Thanks very much, and I think we have time for a few questions.


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