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Project Ploughshares

Project Ploughshares

Member Profile April 2013

Project Ploughshares

Kenneth Epps, Project Ploughshares consulting with Marlon Glean of the Grenada delegation to the Feb UN PrepCom on the Arms Trade Treaty

This month CCIC interviewed Project Ploughshares Executive Director John Siebert. Find out more about the unique contribution to global peace that the organization has provided over the last 38 years, as well as its key role in the successful adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty by the UN Assembly last March.


CCIC - Project Ploughshares was founded 38 years ago, and your vision is to achieve “a secure world without war and a just world at peace”. How does your organization contribute to that?

John Siebert - Research and policy recommendations on disarmament and peacebuilding have provided the pretext for setting all sorts of tables for people to talk with each other across sectors and geography. Project Ploughshares made a commitment early in its work to find policy options to advance its primary goals that could actually be implemented by governments—in Canada and abroad. Working with others of good will and shared intent has been primary to this effort, whether people were in government, academe, civil society or the private sector. While having ready access and respectful listening from Canadian officials on security matters in Foreign Affairs and Defence came to be accepted, more recent experience reminds that this access was earned over time by Ploughshares and other NGOs and cannot be taken for granted. In East Africa Ploughshares has provided international cover and funding for local NGOs and academics to engage their own governments on security issues, sometimes for the first time. Solid research reports and targeted engagement opens doors to conversations. What happens after that comes down to the determination and skill of local civil society actors to pressure their own governments over time.

CCIC - How different are global and national contexts from what they were in 1976, and what is the impact on your work?

John Siebert - Like any organization Project Ploughshares has evolved over time in response to new and emerging issues in the areas of disarmament and peacebuilding. Africa figured prominently in the early years. Ernie and Nancy Regehr had served with Mennonite Central Committee in southern Africa in the 1970s. Upon return to Canada Ernie did research on the export of Canadian military goods to impoverished countries that were also receiving Canadian development assistance. In the 1980s the public winds of anti-nuclear weapons campaigns filled Ploughshares’ sails. Approximately 50 local Ploughshares groups across the country were part of the effort then, and several continue their work today. With the end of the Cold War Ploughshares embarked on a cross-Canada educational campaign under the theme of “common security,” the themes of which echoed in Canada’s human security agenda of the late 1990s. Partnerships with civil society organizations in East Africa and then the Caribbean provided field experience and concrete lessons for implementation of policy recommendations on conflict prevention and peacebuilding. This was accompanied by research and coalition building to advance the control and reduction of small arms and light weapons in UN and other fora. A careful watch on Canadian foreign and defence policy, and particularly Canadian Armed Forces expeditionary missions, has been a constant for Ploughshares. We have collaborated with an extraordinary array of Canadian NGOs, many of whom are CCIC members, as well as international partners and networks, to end war and address its root causes, poverty and marginalization being primary.


CCIC - Project Ploughshares was actively involved in the advocacy work that lead up to the adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) at the UN Assembly early April; what are the lessons and best practices that you draw from this victory?

John Siebert - One major lesson relearned is that working with and through the UN system is a tedious and often frustrating process. But the payoff can, and in this case does, make it all worthwhile. Civil society promoted the idea of a global agreement on conventional arms transfers for 10 years before a 2006 General Assembly resolution triggered UN treaty discussions. Project Ploughshares joined the effort in 1998. Along the way, we constantly pressed states, even achieving some UN shortcuts. Yet it took another seven years for the final agreement. Before this, there was no guarantee of success. The global network of civil society actors never wavered from its core position that this trade treaty must be fundamentally humanitarian, and its impact should be measured by protection of human lives and livelihoods.

Perhaps the most important “best practice” was the direct access NGOs had to the UN ATT process, and especially the treaty negotiations. The UN system (and especially some UN member states) traditionally has been wary of the presence of civil society when discussions turn to security matters like weapons trade. Early in the ATT process, Ambassador Roberto Moritan of Argentina, who chaired preliminary discussions and treaty negotiations until July 2012, established that civil society would have access to all formal plenary meetings. Although this did not prevent NGO exclusion at some “informal” sessions, it provided for ongoing civil society presence through the ATT conferences. In practice this meant that NGOs could follow treaty developments and, importantly, they could meet easily and regularly with state delegations. Working relationships were established and built between states and civil society advocates at meetings in New York, in many cases reinforced by interaction with state officials in home capitals. States looked to civil society research, expertise and organization to assist their negotiations, and widen support for many important provisions of the treaty. Certain key states and NGOs became trusted partners. As one example, during final negotiations NGOs were central to working the room to gather state signatures for joint statements on key treaty provisions. None of this would have been possible without open access for civil society to the negotiations.


CCIC - Can you tell us what makes the ATT unique and important, and what are the next key steps that we should be looking at for proper implementation?

John Siebert - The Arms Trade Treaty is the first global convention on transfers of conventional weapons across borders. As a treaty, it is legally-binding, requiring all States Parties to implement high, common standards for national decisions about weapons transfers. Importantly, the ATT requires that every state establish a national control system to regulate arms transfers. Many states do not have such a system. The system must prohibit transfers related to important international legal obligations (if they would be used for genocide for example). The control system also must include an export assessment process to prevent exports of weapons, parts and components, and ammunition if there is a significant risk they would be used for egregious offences such as serious human rights violations.

The treaty opens for state signature on June 3, 2013. NGOs will be looking to the 155 states that voted for the treaty at the UN General Assembly on April 2 – Canada included – to sign on quickly. Then 90 days after the 50th signatory ratifies the treaty, the ATT enters into force, a process that some suggest could take two or three years. Treaty implementation then occurs at the national level. It will be a long-term project that also must draw on state and civil society partnerships, resources and expertise to be effective. Among other tasks, NGOs will need to monitor implementation and reporting, to support states that are meeting treaty standards and to “name and shame” states that are ignoring them. States “in a position to do so” will need to cooperate with states that require assistance, especially to develop national control systems and some basic capabilities like effective border controls.

CCIC - Your organization collaborates a lot with students and interns; how would you summarize their main contributions to your work? And what are the key elements to make it a positive experience, both for the organization and for the student/intern?

John Siebert - Creating meaningful and substantial work assignments for students is the key to their having a successful internship. This is a challenge. Much of Ploughshares’ research work is directed to particular government or intergovernmental processes such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or working to establish an Arms Trade Treaty. As policy practitioners we engage in research that assumes knowledge of the venues in which the reports will be used and key players in complicated political processes. As a matter of course, students will not have the necessary background or relationships. Where student interns’ skills have been quite useful is on annually updated reports such as our Space Security Index ( and our Armed Conflicts Report ( In both cases, there are precedents to guide their work. They also experience professional editing and copy editing, sometimes for the first time in their careers, which can turn even the roughest drafts into polished prose for publication!



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