Last Wednesday, the First Committee of the U.N. General Assembly approved a resolution to hold a final negotiating conference on the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) on March 18–28, using the treaty text from last July’s conference and under the rule of consensus (i.e., any nation can block the treaty by objecting to it).
The General Assembly must now consider the resolution, but it is a foregone conclusion that they will approve it by an overwhelming margin.
This move is being reported as either the actual adoption of a treaty (which it is not) or a post-election surprise by the Obama Administration. That is also incorrect. The U.N.’s schedule was delayed by Hurricane Sandy, and the vote should have been held before the election.
The U.S.spoke in favor of the resolution in late October, and the resolution itself was circulating in September (when I first saw a draft of it). The Administration has not changed its position in any publicly detectable way. There is nothing here that is surprising or shocking; it is exactly what I predicted when I wrote on the subject on November 1.
But it is useful to make two points. First, opponents of the ATT who did a victory dance in July, when the first negotiating conference collapsed, were kidding themselves. As I warned at the time, the collapse was “not the end of the process. It is the end of a phase.” Victory dances were wrong, and being wrong is rarely helpful.
Second, these sorts of spasmodic outbursts of anger at U.N. wrongdoing (frequently real, occasionally not) are not particularly constructive, because much U.N. wrongdoing is a process, not an event, and focusing on events too often means the process gets ignored by default.
In the past, I have argued (and still believe) that the ATT is a bad idea. But the adoption of the resolution on Wednesday was a predictable event of no particular significance—except that it guarantees that something that was always very likely to happen will in fact happen.
There is just as much reason to dislike the treaty now as there was the day before the election, because as far as the ATT goes, nothing fundamental has changed.