After the dictatorial circus of the morning, the afternoon session of the ATT Conference was comparatively calm.
The lowlight was the address by Saudi Arabia, which seemed to be doing its best to outbid Egypt in the “we support Palestine” sweepstakes. No demand was too extreme: Palestinian state membership in the U.N., nuclear disarmament, no parallel meetings at the conference, an attack on Israel for not respecting the right of Palestinian self-determination in the “Occupied Territories” (someone needs to tell the Saudis that Hamas, not Israel, controls Gaza), a demand that the treaty respect the “rights of importing states” (i.e., the rights of autocracies to buy the guns they want), and the need for states to be able to import arms for “internal security” (a demand that is wide open to abuse by authoritarian regimes).
The highlights of the session were, thankfully, more numerous. Spain and New Zealand made solid statements urging that the ATT apply strictly to genuinely international arms traffic. Canada’s statement, too, was helpful on what in the U.S. would be Second Amendment grounds, though regrettably it chose to defend the legitimacy of hunting and sport shooting in the context only of the treaty’s preamble, not its scope.
And then there was the U.S. statement, made by Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman. As in July 2011, the U.S. spoke on behalf of the Permanent Five (P5) Members of the Security Council. The statement was banal but obviously important.
The U.S. and the rest of the P5 want an ATT that is based fundamentally on “effective systems [of national control] based on common international standards,” with authority for approving transfers remaining the right and responsibility of sovereign nations. The scope of the treaty should be as broad as possible—so long as it is practical. An Implementation Support Unit in the U.N. “could” be created to facilitate information exchange, match needs for foreign aid with those supplying it, and “promote the value” of the ATT.
Finally, the ATT should not enter into force until a reasonable number—Countryman suggested 65—states had ratified it, and he “expects” this number to include the main arms trading states.
Little if any of this is shocking—most surprising was the U.S. support for U.N. propaganda, i.e. activities to “promote the value” of the ATT—but a few points are worth making.
First, Countryman did not mention including small arms, light weapons, or ammunition in the ATT. Second, he made no reference at all to domestic constitutional protections or the need for the ATT to respect hunters and sport shooters and the right of personal self-defense. Finally, he emphasized the need for the national definition of the goods and services covered by the ATT.
In short, the U.S. statement was pure lowest common denominator, which is not surprising: In the context of the ATT, the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, and China in fact agree on very little. The U.S. strategy, thus, continues to be fairly simple: to run interference for the autocracies and to try to secure an ATT that the U.S., Russia, and China can sign on to (which will be an ATT that is very general) in the hope that this will satisfy the broader demand for a treaty.
And that leads to the real conflict in the U.S. position: An ATT that is based on sovereignty cannot at the same time be one that is based on “common international standards” if those standards are in practice defined by the ever-evolving sentiments of the “international community” and tightened regularly by the review conferences that will be found necessary by the unsatisfied majority at this conference.
The U.S. is kicking the can down the road. But in so doing, it’s moving ever closer to a treaty that will be bad for U.S. interests and will keep U.S. diplomats busy fending off more bad ideas for years to come.