The First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, which focuses on disarmament and international security, has for the past month been hearing statements from U.N. member states, U.N. officials, and NGOs on a wide range of subjects, from outer space to chemical and biological weapons.
But a central focus of many statements is the U.N.’s proposed Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The supposed purpose of this treaty is to establish “common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms.” The U.S. agreed to participate in the negotiations on the ATT on October 14, 2009, but only if the negotiations were conducted on the basis of consensus. The Administration hopes this will “ensure that all countries can be held to standards that will actually improve the global situation.”
The ATT as it is currently envisioned is deeply flawed, as illustrated by the speakers, and the statements made on the ATT’s behalf, in the First Committee. The High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Sergio Duarte, kicked things off by quoting a statement by Dag Hammarskjöld, a past Secretary General of the United Nations, that if the U.N. tried to do too much, it would be weakened “as if we were to permit the growth of a tree to be weakened by the development of too many branches, finally sapping its strength so that it breaks down under its own weight.” As illustrated by the First Committee’s extensive agenda and the ATT’s overreach, that is an excellent point. Sadly, it is one to which the U.N.—as Czech President Vaclav Klaus pointed out in September—has paid no attention.
The Chair of the First ATT Preparatory Committee, Ambassador Roberto García Moritán of Argentina, then got down to brass tacks. One of his proudest claims was that the negotiation of the Arms Trade Treaty would be “undertaken in an open and transparent manner.” The U.N. is so open and transparent that Amb. Moritán’s statement, made on October 19, is not available online from the United Nations. The meeting of the Preparatory Committee that he chaired was distinguished by Amb. Moritán’s ruling that NGOs should be excluded from the plenary sessions, a decision that outraged the vociferous ATT lobby. Since NGOs have no place in such negotiations, the Ambassador’s ruling was sensible on its merits, but it is a measure of the U.N.’s hypocrisy that the self-proclaimed defender of transparency was the one who shoveled the observers out the door.
But the most interesting part of the Ambassador’s remarks was his statement that “there is consensus on the fact that the [ATT] treaty must be feasible, have clear parameters and definitions, be immune from political abuse on its interpretation and be objective, balanced, and non-discriminatory.” No one can quarrel with the idea that treaties should be feasible, or have clear definitions. But the idea that a treaty can be “immune from political abuse on its interpretation” is nonsensical. If a state signs a treaty and wants to cheat on it, no clever wording will stop it from interpreting the treaty as it sees fit, or simply ignoring it.
And as for the goal of “non-discrimination,” the whole idea of the ATT is, in theory, to force nations to be more discriminating in their arms exports. The U.N. pretends that all its member states—except, all too frequently, Israel—are honest and of good will, and that common international standards will therefore only affect criminals and terrorists. But any serious standards would end up affecting many U.N. member states, because it is those member states that supply arms to criminals and terrorists.
For example, they would affect Iran, which supplies arms to terrorist groups across the Middle East, and which used its floor time in the First Committee to proclaim that any state that supplied weapons to Israel was an accomplice to war crimes. They would affect Kenya, which spoke out in favor of the ATT, but which in October 2008 was credibly accused of assisting the smuggling of weapons and tanks to South Sudan. And they would affect China, which stated it was “ready to enhance coordination and cooperation with all parties to eliminate the illicit trade of SALW [small arms and light weapons] at an early time,” but which in 2008 defended the supply of 77 tons of small arms to the criminal regime of Zimbabwe as “normal” and “prudent and responsible.”
The NGO statements to the First Committee on the ATT illustrate this gulf between reality and aspiration. The Defense Small Arms Advisory Council, an association of mostly U.S.-based manufacturers of small arms, expressed support for the ATT, but pointed out that while the ATT’s partisan supporters “have been clearly heard on many occasions,” the same “cannot be said for those elements of civil society that have actual experience and expertise as members of industry engaged in the international arms trade.” By coincidence, the next presentation was made on behalf of the Control Arms Coalition—the lead NGO coalition that campaigns for an ATT. Its speaker made a nod towards the need for “appropriate technical experts,” but spent most of her time demanding a comprehensive treaty as rapidly as possible, even if it was not universal.
Make no mistake about it: these NGOs matter. They are driving the ATT process, and even if the U.S. does not sign and ratify the ATT, the NGOs can and will continue to campaign toward the treaty’s goals inside the U.S. And there will be an ATT: the only question is what will be in it. The goal of its supporters—including many member states—is to go for a treaty that will be unacceptable to the U.S. (likely on Second Amendment grounds), while not worrying much about the actual practices of states like China and Iran. With the treaty established, in place, and ineffective, they will then devote themselves to their favorite cause of harrying the U.S. and Israel for failing to sign on.
The Obama Administration believes that its demand for consensus-based negotiations will protect it against such an outcome. But in the end, its demand for consensus will be used against it, as the U.S. is the state that is most likely to object to any consensus that results from the negotiations. The crunch will come when the negotiations cross a U.S. red line. Given the pace at which the U.N. and its supporters are driving the ATT along, that will happen soon enough.