One of the unreported stories about the negotiation of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) at the United Nations is the effort by many U.N. members, supplemented by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), to blame the failure of the first negotiating conference last July on the United States.
This story demonstrates the widespread eagerness to blame the U.S. for anything, which in turn sheds light on how the ATT, once it comes into being, will be interpreted and implemented in practice.
Last July’s negotiating conference on the ATT did not arrive at an agreed text. The conference broke down on the last day after the U.S., followed by several other nations (including China), stated that there were so many unresolved issues that it was not possible to conclude an agreement that day. That statement has been proven by the fact that the March 2013 negotiating conference lasted for nine days: The July text was clearly not mere hours from being finished.
Yet a Mexican statement on behalf of 90 nations, made at the close of the July conference, asserted (emphasis added) that “We believe we were very close to reaching our goals…. In order to make this Treaty a reality, additional work and efforts are needed. We had believed that this would have been possible with extra work today and only very reluctantly now see that this is not possible.”
In October 2012, the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, one of many NGOs to take this line, chimed in with the assertion that “it was primarily the United States of America…that scuppered chances of an agreement” at the July conference.
But suddenly, in March 2013, the position of the treaty advocates shifted. The U.S. continued to regard the July text as a satisfactory basis for further negotiation and refinement. The treaty advocates, on the other hand, now regarded the July text, which they had formerly described as “very close” to their goals, as unsatisfactory. In a statement on behalf of 108 nations—largely the same group that supported Mexico’s July 2012 statement—the Mexican delegation now asserted that “This [July] text needs considerable improvement in order to reach our objective.”
The U.S. seized on this contradiction, which badly weakened the negotiating position of the Mexican group. In a statement before the conference on March 25, Assistant Secretary of State Tom Countryman noted that “[in July] 90 countries said they could accept that text. Since that time, [the] March 22 text [has become] stronger, clearer, and more implementable. I would hope all those who could accept the July text could accept this stronger one.” Both Mexico and New Zealand responded quickly. As the New Zealand delegation put it, “What we were signifying in that statement [last July], as has already been clarified this morning by the Delegation of Mexico…, was that the 26 July text was to be our basis for carrying work forward to this next Diplomatic Conference.”
This claim is untrue. The July statement argued that a treaty could be adopted “today,” not at “this next Diplomatic Conference.” This is a classic example of moving the goalposts to the detriment of the United States.
Recognizing that the U.S. actually supported the main features of the July draft treaty, the treaty advocates first blamed the U.S. for blocking its adoption and then turned around, condemned the July text, lied about their previous support for it, demanded that the March 2013 conference adopt a wide variety of new demands that they recognized would be unacceptable to the U.S., and then condemned the U.S. for resisting those demands.
The appeal of this strategy for the treaty advocates, both in the U.N. and outside it, is obvious: It allows them to continually ratchet up their demands while all the while blaming the U.S. What is more disheartening, though not surprising, is that the media have largely gone along with this approach, a fact which guarantees that the history of the ATT negotiations will be badly biased.
But worst of all is the fact that this strategy of blaming the U.S. shows what we have to look forward to as the ATT is implemented and amended in the coming years. As we have noted, the ATT is a process, not just a treaty. And that process is already deeply imbued with a “blame America first” mentality.