Late on Thursday, the U.N. conference on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) fell apart when Iran, North Korea, and Syria opposed the treaty.
This was a surprise to virtually all the conference observers. By mid-day Friday, almost everyone thought the treaty would get done that day, if only because the delegates were too tired of the process to do anything else. Sure, there were rumors of trouble with Iran and North Korea, but when Iran’s PressTV reported that Tehran was on board with the treaty, it was hard to take the rumors seriously.
The first lesson is that as long as Iran’s regime is talking, they’re lying. The second lesson is that the North Koreans just don’t care what anyone thinks about them, which is a useful point to remember when anyone suggests that we might be able to talk them into behaving like civilized people. But apart from that, here are my takeaways from the end of this stage of the process:
- The treaty will now go to the U.N. General Assembly, perhaps as soon as Tuesday, where the U.S. and a substantial majority of U.N. member states will support it. The collapse of the conference is a bump in the road, not a roadblock.
- It wasn’t just Iran, North Korea, and Syria that opposed the treaty. They were the only ones who, in U.N. parlance, formally “broke consensus.” But at least 29 nations condemned the treaty after the conference fell apart and another six—including big players such as Russia, China, India, and Pakistan—were extremely skeptical about it. All in all, about one in five of the nations at the conference did not back the treaty.
- It’s impossible to exaggerate the hypocrisy of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and a lot of the governments, that back the treaty. Even some decent places like New Zealand aren’t ashamed to tell fibs in order to throw blame on the U.S., and virtually all the NGOs are glad to pile on. And listening to dedicated arms smugglers such as Kenya, South Sudan, and Rwanda moan about how they need the treaty to save themselves from arms smuggling is enough to make you sick.
- The U.S. supports “consensus-based negotiations,” because they protect us from majority rule. The NGOs hate consensus, because it limits their ability to bully us. Quite a few nations in the U.N. hate it for the same reason—indeed, as the conference was collapsing, Mexico ridiculously tried to redefine consensus, a word that everyone at the U.N. knows means “no nation formally objects.”
- The outcome of this conference is thus almost the worst of all possible worlds. The treaty, with all its flaws, will be voted into existence by the U.N. General Assembly in a majority rule process, a process the U.S. has always opposed as the basis for multilateral diplomacy. The NGOs and the consensus-hating nations will use this to argue that the U.S. itself now recognizes that the principle of consensus is bad. That will lead Russia, China, and India, who like consensus even more than we do, to drop out of future negotiations. That, in turn, will further increase the pressure on the U.S. the next time around. It needs to be said, clearly and often, that the problem with the U.N. is not consensus; it’s the number of dictatorships at the table.
- Anyone who denies that the ATT is, in part and for some nations, about control of civilian firearms was not listening on the last day. Nicaragua said it had a “stringent and implacable” plan to control civilian firearms, and it viewed the ATT as part of that plan. A string of Arab dictatorships (and others) demanded that the ATT ban the supply of firearms to “unauthorized non-state actors”—i.e., private citizens. The more gun control the ATT contains, the closer it will come to near-universal adoption, because a lot of nations view it as a rebellion-prevention plan. I do not believe that the ATT is a simple U.N. “gun grab”; the U.N. doesn’t have the power or the competence to do anything like that. But the direction that it will tend in the decades to come seems obvious.
The end of the conference leaves failed to answer one nagging question. Many nations say, loudly and often, that they want tight controls on their arms imports and exports. So why haven’t they gone ahead and adopted them already? They have the unquestioned right to do so. And yet, curiously, they’ve not done it. That leads me to think that it wasn’t just the Arabs and the other dictators who aren’t really all that interested in importing and exporting arms responsibly.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog referenced Friday and has been changed to Thursday.