Draft Arms Trade Treaty Omits Explicit Reference to ‘Unmanned’ Weapons

On Tuesday morning, 24 July, the chair of the Diplomatic Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) released his long-awaited draft of an international instrument to regulate the trade in conventional weapons.

Unfortunately, as I explain in my commentary piece for Global Policy today, the draft treaty is…well…drafty. There are several major holes in the text that give states considerable room for maneuver at the expense of efforts to reduce human suffering in armed conflict.

In particular, the Scope of the ATT has been narrowed from some of the committee drafts, which aimed to regulate ‘all conventional arms, either manned or unmanned’ to the seven categories of arms covered by the UN Register on Conventional Weapons plus small arms and light weapons. The explicit reference to ‘unmanned’ weapons has disappeared and there are weak provisions for controlling technological systems with both potential dual uses — that could be weaponized. It is thus unclear whether the treaty would apply to Predator drones that have not yet been fitted with missiles.

If it passes, this draft ATT could establish norms against dealing arms — robotic or otherwise — to abusers of human rights and and humanitarian law. However, its lack of strong provisions in the Scope could also stymie efforts to regulate and constrain the  robotic weapons that are becoming increasingly popular in the military forces of industrialized countries.

UPDATE 30 July 2012: On 26 July, the chair of the conference released an updated draft of the treaty text, but it also failed to include strong provisions for unmanned systems, particularly dual use ones like drones. The next day, the conference collapsed as the US, Russia, China and a few authoritarian states stalled the negotiations. There is still a chance that a treaty, based on the draft text, will pass in the next year, but the exact shape of the Treaty and process for adoption is, as of  today, unclear.

Matthew Bolton, Department of Political Science, Dyson College of Arts and Sciences, Pace University New York City.

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