CIVICUS speaks to Anna Macdonald, Director of the Control Arms Secretariat, which leads a global civil society coalition comprising over 300 partners in all regions of the world working for international arms control. Control Arms played a key leadership role in the campaign for the Arms Trade Treaty that was finally adopted at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in April 2013. This was achieved as a result of more than a decade of sustained activism, including coordinated advocacy, research and policy analysis, international popular mobilisation, digital media outreach, the involvement of a wide range of stakeholder organisations, and a partnership approach with supportive governments.
- Why is disarmament such an important issue in present times? Are there any heightened challenges that you are facing?
Disarmament is a key issue because there is political instability and poverty in many parts of the world, and instability, poverty and armed violence are all so inextricably linked. It is essential that governments take much greater steps to regulate and reduce weapon flows in the world’s worst conflict hotspots, which are also poverty-stricken areas plagued by human rights abuses.
Disarmament work is always two steps forward, one step backwards: you make progress, all the while facing setbacks, but ultimately I think we are gradually moving in the right direction. Over the past year we have seen both progress and setbacks. Among the former is the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the first binding international agreement that prohibits nuclear weapons and pursues the goal of eliminating them completely. This treaty was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in July 2017, and is testimony to the great work of ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons).
Another step forward was the subsequent awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to ICAN for its efforts towards the adoption of the nuclear treaty. I think this recognition will have a positive impact on all coalitions and movements that are working on disarmament and arms control, because it demonstrates the credibility and seriousness of civil society groups working to reduce violence and conflict, it puts the spotlight onto those countries that are not yet in compliance with international norms, and it generally raises the profile and the political importance of these issues. So it is a very positive development for all of us engaged in this field.
The very fact that the Nobel Price was given to a coalition working against nuclear weapons also represents the recognition that we currently face very real and great danger as a result of the escalation of hostilities between the United States and North Korea. The Trump administration evidently represents a huge setback, and it would definitely be a mistake to downplay or underestimate it. But it shouldn’t be treated as an isolated phenomenon either: we are simultaneously watching the development of movements in countries around the world that are looking at alternate ways forward for international relations, focused on peace-building and non-violent methods of dispute resolution. And governments in many countries are willing to work with civil society and are trying to change the nature of aggression and conflict. So I think there are positive signs in the midst of what has overall been a very worrying year.
- Can you tell us more about the work you do at Control Arms: your mission, recent history, strategies and key successes?
We work to try to reduce violence and conflict through international arms control. Our most notable success has been the pursuit and adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the first multilateral treaty to regulate the global trade in conventional weapons, and to do so on the basis of human rights and humanitarian law. The ATT was adopted by the UN General Assembly in April 2013, opened for signature in June 2013 and entered into force in December 2014, 90 days after the date of its 50th ratification.
We successfully campaigned for the Treaty with the Control Arms Coalition of partners and members from around the world, including a wide variety of civil society organisations, spanning from those working directly on disarmament and weapon-specific issues to those working on poverty alleviation, human rights, transparency and anti-corruption, as well as networks focusing on youth, survivors and women. Our Coalition includes a whole range of organisations, which means that it encompasses a great breadth and depth of experience and expertise. It’s this unity of effort and purpose towards trying to reduce the devastation brought about by the unregulated flow of weapons around the world that has contributed to our success.
We use a mix of strategies. We facilitate and coordinate the representation and attendance of civil society at official forums, through formal processes, working groups and meetings. We have a core programme with partners and members around the world, who are working at the national and regional levels around treaty implementation and universalisation. We have also engaged in popular campaigning, movement building and, generally speaking, actions designed to engage the general public and raise the political profile of the need for a change.
Monitoring is an important part of our work as well. We have a big programme built around research and monitoring of the ATT, which does not have a global verification mechanism. This is a gap that civil society has filled through the creation of the ATT monitoring project, which monitors both the universalisation of the treaty – how many countries are joining and what steps they are taking to put in place appropriate legislation – and its implementation, that is, how much impact it is having and what difference it is making to the global arms trade.
In sum, we use a whole mixture of strategies, including research and analysis, advocacy and popular campaigning, movement building and monitoring.
- How much progress has there been in terms of universalisation and implementation of the ATT?
For a treaty of the depth and impact of the ATT, universalisation has been relatively swift. The treaty formally entered into force just 18 months after it was adopted, which is pretty quick in treaty terms. This happened following a campaign that we led, ‘The Race to 50’, aimed at reaching the threshold of 50 ratifications that had been established as a requirement for the Treaty to enter into force. We also saw many countries that did not have any formal arms legislation in place develop national control systems, better methods of border security and border control, and bring together the necessary ministries and government agencies to try and coordinate around the regulation of arms imports and exports. So there’s been considerable success in moving forward from what used to be an extremely patchwork network of arms controls.
Of course we are also seeing challenges: we are seeing countries blatantly violate the treaty, most notably those arms exporters that are still transferring weapons to Saudi Arabia despite numerous and overwhelming evidence of violations of international human rights law in the conflict in Yemen. We are extremely disappointed that the governments of the United Kingdom, the United States and France, in particular, continue to supply weapons to the Saudi regime in the face of this evidence.
At the same time, there have been encouraging signs from governments that have changed their arms transfer decisions to Saudi Arabia by either cancelling or suspending arms transfers. That is a positive step forward; it is encouraging that these governments have looked at the ATT’s criteria and then changed their positions regarding the arms trade with Saudi Arabia as a result of the situation in Yemen.
In sum, as can be expected with a new treaty, we have a mix of violations and adherence, and one of the roles that civil society is pursuing very strongly is to push for the creation of a global standard whereby even those countries that aren’t part of the treaty feel the political pressure to abide by its standards. As a result, we will hopefully see a gradual reduction in the flow of weapons towards human rights abusers and conflict zones.
- How can civil society at large assist in your efforts towards peace and disarmament?
By recognising the strong links between armed violence and conflict, on one hand, and underdevelopment, on the other. Take the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): many SDG targets cannot be met while armed violence and violent conflict persist. There is a specific recognition of this in Goal 16, which calls for a reduction in illicit arms flows, but there are also strong implicit linkages with every other goal, from poverty reduction to gender equality, anti-corruption and measures for greater transparency. The way we can all work together is for the broader civil society movement to recognise the inter-linkages among all these issues. There is no such thing as a silo for arms issues, separate from another silo for poverty issues, and another one for human rights issues; all these issues are inextricably linked and therefore must be dealt with holistically. We welcome interaction and joint work with other civil society organisations and coalitions, so I would like to encourage CIVICUS members to get in touch with us with their ideas or simply to discuss possibilities or ways in which we may work together. I think civil society movements and organisations are stronger and achieve all the more impact when we work together.