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Addressing Indian Dilemmas on the Arms Trade Treaty

Air Cmde. (Retd.) Prashant Dikshit is the Editor of Salute.
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  • May 15, 2012

    The keel of a global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) was laid in 2003 by a group of Nobel Peace Laureates. But it received support in the United Nations General Assembly only in December 2006 when it passed Resolution 61/89. This resolution entrusted the UN Secretary-General with the task of seeking the views of Member States on the feasibility, scope and draft parameters for a comprehensive, legally binding, instrument establishing common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms. 153 member states had voted for the resolution and 24 countries had abstained. India was one of the countries to abstain but that did not come in the way of it being included in the Group of Government Experts (GGE) to undertake this task. Subsequently, in a sequence of events, the GGE submitted its report and a Preparatory Committee (PREPCOM) heard the Member States in the back drop of this report over three sittings spanning two years from July 2010 to July 2011.

    Eventually, a Chairman’s (PREPCOM) draft paper fructified, which is a draft of the treaty recommended by this committee and which for the last time perhaps was discussed by the PREPCOM in February 2012. It was during these sessions that the Indian delegate chose to remind the Chairman that Resolution 61/89 had clearly enunciated that “that the United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty shall be undertaken in an open and transparent manner, on the basis of consensus to achieve a strong and robust treaty.” Apparently, couched in gentle officialese, this statement indicated India’s lack of confidence about the performance of the committee. The Indian delegate also highlighted that the draft rules procedure must conform to the spirit of the above resolution as if to clearly imply that the matter has not been handled the way in which it ought to have been.

    Experienced observers of the UN do not view the Indian attitude askance, in the belief that that is how work is done at the UN. In any event, no participating state appears to have been fully satisfied with the Chairman’s paper. But, among analysts, there is a view that India has been a reluctant participant and is now opening an avenue to withdraw from the process as a conscientious objector. The Indian delegates have emphasised on the supremacy of national interests, foreign policy goals and conflicting commercial interests as the cardinal issues that must shape the nature of the instrument.
    These are potent dilemmas and they are seemingly addressed in the Chairman’s paper without cause for substantial concern to Indian policy makers.

    Among other intertwining issues, what continues to disturb the Indian establishment is the non-inclusion of non-state actors as likely recipients of illicit arms which, in the Indian experience, is crucial and on which the Chairman’s paper remains silent. This is a valid anxiety shared by nearly half of the globe and it is worth digging one’s heels in for. Similarly, the issues with respect to technology transfer and manufacturing under licence have no meaningful objective for inclusion, since they relate to commercial activity and do not impinge upon the processes of declaring arms transfers with the avowed objectives of eradicating illicit transfers—the raison d’etre for the campaign.

    On the other hand, the Indian position on sticking to the UN Conventional Arms Register yardsticks in the segment on Scope of the treaty for the fear of dealing with the problems of definition would tantamount to the global community shunning its responsibilities. The Chairman’s paper only adds Small Arms and Light Weapons to its list, in an endeavour to conform to the underlying principle of lethality in distinguishing the weapon systems. But the process still remains half done given that it does not take note of the actual experiences of the last two decades. Some glaring omissions can be seen in this segment.

    Firstly, Military Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (MUAVs) need to be brought in, which are growing at an unprecedented rate and are also being pushed into the arms market. At the 8th air show at Zhuhai in November 2010, for example, China showcased as many as 25 MUAV models in combat and battlefield reconnaissance roles, and is eager to sell its mass-produced products to under-developed countries that find Western products expensive, both politically and economically. The technology is advancing so rapidly that MUAVs may be produced for as less as a few thousand dollars for a Micro Air Vehicle, (MAV) weighing less than one pound. It is bound to lead to illicit untamed production by non-state actors.

    Secondly, most disturbingly, Land Mines do not feature in this list. The 1999 Ottawa Convention had brought only anti-personnel mines within its ambit for a ban and did not consider the other varieties such as anti-tank mines. Mines do not feature at all in the current description of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW), seen separately or in any form. In fact, even in the vaguest definition of SALW, shaped under the aegis of the UN, mines have not found a place. Therefore, there is a compelling case for specially mentioning Mines as a grouping. Irrespective of the conundrums faced on this crucial issue, we would fall short of global expectations if we lose out in including this potent weapon of war. Considering that the premise of the ATT is to identify and bring all weapons within its ambit and with only the avowed intent to list them, States should not have any objection if Mines are included. In this context, an Indian delegate clearly apprised a UN working group of the successful Indian endeavour of using only detectable devices and of its principled stand of refraining from the use of anti-personnel mines.

    We must also clearly identify Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and not leave them outside the ambit of the ATT. It would be quite material to note that IEDs, especially those triggered by a distant source as against the ones that explode on contact, did not merit consideration in the Ottawa Convention. India’s own experiences are extremely material in this realm and a way needs to be found for their inclusion.

    Beyond the structured framework, but of some relevance, is the reasonable prospect of “Conventional Weapons in Space” with space vehicles being equipped with derivatives of current conventional weapon systems, especially in near space zones. The material issue is that the “Outer Space Treaty of 1967” does not prohibit space faring nations from placing conventional weapons in orbit. The intention should be to bring this likely scenario into focus.

    One is loathe admitting that Indian protestations about the reporting and recording procedures being burdensome would look improper for a country of our stature and standing, however merited the annual reporting procedure may be. The saving grace may be provided by the United States with which India may find itself on the same page.

    Air Cmde. (Retd.) Prashant Dikshit is the Editor of Salute.