During my recent visit to New York for the Arms Trade Treaty Conference, the United Nations marked the “International Day of Happiness” on 20 March. But for me, our Senior Expert on Arms Trade, Rob Wright, and many others in civil society, the appropriate date to celebrate was 2 April, when an overwhelming majority of states at the UN General Assembly voted in favourof the UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).
While there are international treaties to control the sale of almost any good imaginable—from dinosaur bones to postage stamps and bananas—there had been no treaty to control the trade in weapons worldwide until this week.
We are talking about a huge, expensive, and very secretive sector in which corruption is easy to hide. Military expenditure around the world last year reached USD 1.7 trillion, similar to Brasil’sGDP. National security has been used and abused as an excuse to disguise illicit practices, and bribes are easy to conceal within these huge defence contracts. Transparency International estimates the global cost of defence corruption to be at least USD 20 billion a year, and its new defence indices show two-thirds of the largest arms importers and half of the biggest arms exporters in the world have weak anti-corruption controls. The Arms Trade Treaty is a crucial step in changing this.
The effort over the last few weeks has been intense. At Transparency International, our key focus has been working with states that push for anti-corruption provisions in the treaty and to have conversations with those that are opposed or reluctant to see whether we might be able to change their opinion.
Three sections in the ATT will help states to address the corruption risks at the various stages of an arms transfer:
- As part of the strictest level of arms export assessment criteria (alongside international humanitarian law and human rights law), the treaty mandates that states shall not authorise an export if there is a risk that the arms in question could be used to “commit or facilitate an act constituting an offence under international conventions or protocols relating to transnational organised crime to which the exporting State is a Party.”
As is clearly pointed out in the UN Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime, to which 174 states are party, these offences include both corruption and money laundering. This means that in the future, states should not issue an arms export license in cases where anti-corruption red flags raise concerns, for example when one broker involved is awarded a third of an entire multi-million-pound deal as a “commission payment”.
- The phenomenon of diversion of weapons away from their intended end-user (e.g. from police and security forces to criminal groups) has been one of the key arguments for why states want an ATT. Consequently, an entire article in the treaty is now devoted to diversion, and the risk of diversion is a reason to refuse an arms export license. The first element listed in terms of information states should share to better prevent diversion is corruption. This means that once they are implementing the treaty, states should not issue an arms export license when there is a risk that corruption might undermine the ability of states to control the diversion of weapons from their intended end-users to human rights abusers and dictators.
- Furthermore, “State Parties are encouraged to take national measures and to cooperate with each other to prevent the transfer of conventional arms [...] becoming subject to corrupt practices”. This calls upon states to take action at the national level beyond the risk assessment, and to actively work with others at the international level to address corruption risks in a preventive manner. We have successfully worked with governments to apply a number of practical instruments to this effect in various countries all around the world, such as developing anti-corruption plans for different branches of the armed forces, Codes of Conduct, self-assessment processes, and Defence Integrity pacts, and we stand ready to help even more states to use them.
Until the very end, the inclusion of anti-corruption measures was opposed by a number of states—often and unsurprisingly those with less-than-stellar anti-corruption standards according to our Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index (GI). We are very grateful to those states which fought back strongly against this resistance. Heated discussions behind closed doors featured our broad range of arguments for why an ATT can only be truly robust if it addresses corruption, and citations of the evidence for the devastating impact of corruption in the arms trade—from books like Andrew Feinstein’s “The Shadow World”—underlined why states thought it was critical to make sure anti-corruption language found its way into the treaty.
This historic moment is the result of years of tireless work by a wide range of actors comprised of concerned countries, their diplomats, and Transparency International’s partners in civil society—particularly the Control Arms coalition, where some members have been campaigning to get an ATT for 20 years. In the UK, this coalition includes Oxfam GB, Amnesty UK, Saferworld, Action on Armed Violence, and Article 36. It is also the result of our own work with governments, institutional investors and the defence industry towards a robust with strong anti-corruption measures.
As states have pointed out, the effort is far from over and the marathon to control arms is just starting. The ATT should be ‘a floor, not a ceiling’. Alongside our partners in the Control Arms coalition, we are calling on states to see the treaty as a starting point to set new international standards. Once passed, states should sign and ratify the treaty as soon as possible and aim high in their implementation plans.
Tobias Bock is a project officer in Transparency International's Defence and Security Programme