In New York, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) conference is entering its final phase, and the ways in which the negotiations might fail are becoming clearer.
A large number of nations—mainly the Middle East but also Bangladesh, Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and others—are not going to get much of what they want from this treaty. That is a good thing. These nations want the treaty to:
- Drop its “offensive criteria” (i.e., any reference to their corruption, incompetence, and human rights abuses),
- Legitimize terrorism against Israel and the U.S,
- Focus on the supply of arms to “non-state actors” (i.e., anyone who might overthrow them),
- Include “mandatory dispute resolution” (i.e., an international guarantee of their right to buy arms), and
- Create a more “balanced geographical representation” in the Secretariat, which would mean more jobs for them.
These demands make clear that these nations have no intention at all of abiding by the treaty. Since the treaty will not include many of these demands, the only question is whether these nations will break consensus and block it. In the past, nations such as Zimbabwe and Iran have been willing to stand almost alone in voting in the U.N. on conventional arms. But no one seems to believe that they will be willing to do it this time.
If that belief is correct, that leaves two blocs: the U.S., joined uncertainly by Russia and China—all of whom are willing to accept the treaty largely as it stood last July—and the holier-than-thou bloc led by Norway and Ghana, which want a perfect treaty.
If the holier-than-thou bloc get the perfect treaty, the U.S. will likely break consensus. If Norway and Ghana don’t get what they want—and it seems likely that they will not—they may break consensus and try to push the treaty through the U.N. General Assembly on a majority vote. Or, if that looks likely to fail, they may break out of the U.N. entirely and follow the process that created the treaties on land mines (1997) and cluster munitions (2008). The holier-than-thous clearly have the willpower to vote no: In late 2011, they broke up promising negotiations in Geneva because they didn’t get everything they wanted.
So what do the holier-than-thous want? Britain set out their demands this morning:
- The full inclusion of ammunition and parts and components in the treaty’s scope and its expansion to cover hand grenades, land mines, and demolition charges, which the U.S. rejects.
- Disallowance of “defense cooperation agreements” to be a backdoor out of the treaty, a demand the U.S. supports.
- Inclusion of human rights offenses defined by customary international law to be part of the treaty criteria, a dangerous request that the U.S. should oppose.
- Keeping the knowledge-based standard in the draft text and application of a “substantial” risk standard to arms transfers—the former is bad for the U.S. and the latter is opposed by the U.S.
- Public reporting on international arms transfers. The U.S. already reports on its defense exports, though not fully on its imports.
- Consensus agreement on a strong treaty, i.e., that the U.S. and others must concede and give them what they want through the U.N. negotiating process.
The treaty’s “final provisions” are also controversial. Collectively, these are the treaty’s organizational and technical arrangements, including how the treaty can be amended, how meetings of the signatories will be handled, and how many nations must ratify the treaty for it to come into force. The current draft requires 65 ratifications, but many nations want a much lower number: 35.
This is far too few. The demand for such a low number of ratifications continues the disturbing trend of supposedly multilateral treaties requiring too few actual members. The Kyoto Protocol (1997) required 55 ratifications, the Ottawa Convention (1997) required 40 ratifications, and the cluster munitions treaty (2008) required 30. If the ATT requires only 35 ratifications, it could come into force with the backing of only 18 percent of the nations at this conference.
This would make it even clearer than it is now that the treaty does not reflect the actual practices of an overwhelming majority of the world’s nations.