Achieving a binding instrument on business & human rights: 3 lessons from the Arms Trade Treaty campaign

Marilyn Croser, CORE Coalition (UK)

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The challenge for treaty campaigners is to come up with an ambitious yet achievable proposal and identify home States that are prepared to support it.

This blog is part of the debate blog series on the proposed treaty and its complementarity with the UN Guiding Principles. We believe that an inclusive and open debate is crucial to make sure these initiatives deliver for everyone, and that the business & human rights movement continues its 'unity in diversity'.

The first Intergovernmental Working Group (IGWG) on the proposed business and human rights (BHR) treaty in Geneva took place at the same time (and in the same building) as the final preparatory meeting for the first Conference of States Parties for the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).  The culmination of a long and hard-fought civil society campaign and international diplomatic effort, the ATT was described as "a breakthrough in curbing human rights violations” when it entered into force on Christmas Eve 2014.  The ATT has its detractors and ongoing global conflicts, the ambivalence of several major exporters (China and Russia abstained in the final vote and have not signed), and the slow pace of implementation serve as a reminder that a treaty is not a panacea or a quick fix. Yet it remains a significant international victory and an oft-cited example of what campaigning can achieve.

When Amnesty International, Oxfam and IANSA (the International Action Network on Small Arms) launched Control Arms in 2003, the treaty proposal was supported by three States: Mali, Cambodia and Costa Rica.  Three years later 153 countries voted at the UN in favour of beginning work on a treaty.  How did this come about and what can BHR treaty advocates learn from this success?

1.       The campaign memorably communicated the problem and the solution

Most people think it’s a bad idea for anyone to be allowed to buy and sell AK-47s so the case wasn’t difficult to make.  Figures on volumes of arms transfers, numbers of people killed and injured as a consequence of armed violence, and the financial cost of conflict are also relatively easy to come by, as are personal stories, sadly.  Bringing home the reality of the arms trade, often in a highly visual way motivated people to put pressure on decision-makers to act.   

“Control Arms” isn’t the most imaginative campaign name, but it doesn’t leave much room for confusion.  Communications about corporate malpractice tend to be abstract and overly-complicated.  This is understandable.  The problem is multifaceted, often information is not recorded or is in the hands of companies, and it’s easy to become buried in the detail of claim and counter-claim.

This can be addressed by talking more about the issues as they are experienced by individual people, less about generalities.  Putting numbers on corporate abuse is difficult but not impossible, as demonstrated by this recent Global Witness report which gives a figure for murders of environmental defenders in 2014.

The ATT campaign also succeeded in presenting the treaty as the global solution to a global problem, where other national and regional approaches had failed.  BHR treaty advocates need to better explain precisely why and how a treaty is part of the answer to a diverse range of problems.  The argument is potentially compelling; we just have to get better at making it.

 2.       There was a broad consensus on the form and content of the ATT

The call for an ATT was initiated in the late 1990s by Nobel Peace Laureates supported by the Arms Trade Treaty Steering Committee, a small group of NGOs including Southern grassroots groups.  The ATTSC published The Global Principles for International Arms Transfers, setting out existing obligations and global norms in respect to arms transfers.  The principles were the baseline for the treaty that NGOs wanted to achieve. 

I understand that the ESCR-net/FIDH Treaty Initiative aims to produce an equivalent set of principles for the proposed BHR treaty, following consultation with civil society globally.  Along with the plethora of position papers published around the IGWG, this will help to crystalize the essential components of the treaty, provide an underpinning to the civil society advocacy when there are differences of opinion about strategy and tactics, and make selling the idea of a treaty to governments, investors and companies more straightforward.

 3.       There was support for the ATT from arms exporting States and industry

The process was supported by several (mostly European) States with significant arms exports. The UK government’s support for the ATT, announced in October 2004 was linked to the British Defence Manufacturers’ Association’s decision to back the treaty as a means of levelling the playing field for ‘responsible’ manufacturers (controls on the arms exports were already in place in the UK).  The EU support came after several other Member States came out in favour.

If the IGWG process continues without the involvement of more States that are home to a significant number of multinational companies, the resulting treaty stands little chance of being implemented, even if it were ratified.  The support of these States seems unlikely without backing, or at least not outright opposition from some businesses.  The challenge for BHR treaty campaigners is to come up with an ambitious yet achievable proposal and identify multinational companies' home States that are prepared to support it.

France offers some hope, with the parent company liability bill now in the final stages of its passage through the National Assembly.  Answering recent parliamentary questions, The Netherlands’ Minister of Foreign Affairs did not rule out support for a treaty.  Apparently it was Germany that pushed for the inclusion of commitments on supply chain safety in the recent G7 statement.  Another possibility is Norway, whose Government Pension Fund operates according to ethical guidelines and recently divested from coal.  Beyond Europe, possible supporters could include Brazil (which abstained from the 2014 vote on the Ecuador-South Africa resolution), Canada (if there is a change of government in the Federal Elections in October), and perhaps Japan where management rather than shareholders remain in control of companies and where the CEO-worker pay ratio is lower than in other major economies. These countries are unlikely to lead the charge but would at least broaden the current core group.

And finally…

Achieving a BHR treaty is going to be a long and challenging haul.  It’s vital that the substantial civil society resources already committed are used strategically to deliver a meaningful instrument that stands some chance of being implemented.  This will require tenacity, creativity, unity and a pinch of pragmatism.

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Marilyn Croser is the Director of the CORE Coalition, the UK civil society network on corporate accountability. She worked on the arms trade treaty campaign from 2006-2009.