True belief and true failure at the United Nations

The UN Arms Trade Treaty conference predictably closed in failure as its negotiating mandate expired last week, marking a defeat for NGO-driven diplomacy

The UN Arms Trade Treaty conference failed to negotiate a resolution
Ted Bromund
On 30 July 2012 15:17

The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) conference at the United Nations closed in failure as its negotiating mandate expired Friday afternoon. Six years after the initial General Assembly resolution, and a vigorous NGO campaign, the conference scrambled to collapse as the clock ran out. The ATT was born of true belief. It was also killed by it.

The idea behind the ATT was simple: create a treaty that would restrict the supply of arms to human rights abusers. But if words were enough, the U.N. Security Council’s resolutions would have done the job already. The NGO approach had worked, mostly, to ban land mines in 1997. It began to break down over cluster munitions, when in 2008 moral fervor created a treaty that none of the major players could sign.

The ATT was supposed to be the next step for this NGO-driven diplomacy that merges arms control and human rights. It was a step too far. But it was not for lack of NGO effort. They packed the back of the conference room and pumped out propaganda by the ream. At least 20 national delegations were staffed by Western NGOs, a routine and scandalous practice. One U.S. diplomat described the experience of negotiating a treaty with delegates who were simultaneously commenting via Twitter as “bizarre.”

What was missing was people who knew what they were doing. The ATT was never about banning; it was about regulating, a far more complex activity. And since far too many nations lack the administrative capacity to control their borders, they also lack the ability to negotiate a treaty controlling the arms trade.

When Australia, a leading treaty supporter, bragged that it had subsidized attendance by 35 delegations, the problem was not that it was buying votes. The problem was that if all those delegations lacked the resources to attend, they also lacked the experts to negotiate successfully.

The conference suffered in part because it tried to do it all. When the U.N. polled member states in 2007, the states wanted one thing above all: a treaty that recognized their right to buy, sell, and transfer arms. They also wanted a treaty that would control the illicit arms trade, a conveniently flexible term that was guaranteed to raise Second Amendment hackles in the U.S., and which concealed the fact that at the U.N., the definition of terrorism depends on which capital is speaking. The more the treaty brought human rights standards into play, the less interested the autocrats became.

The conference organization was poor. But it was not the fault of its President --- Ambassador Roberto García Moritán of Argentina -- that its first two days were consumed with a squabble provoked by a Palestinian effort to be seated as a national delegation.

Nor was it his fault that the conference worked largely in two committees, and only separated into issue groups in the final hours: the dictator states did not even like dividing into committees.

The underlying problem was that after six years of resolutions, and four Preparatory Committees, the final conference convened with a year-old paper by Ambassador Moritán as its starting point. With too few experts, and too many cheerleaders and autocracies, the conference had too much to do.

So, predictably, posturing took precedence over results. The Europeans campaigned for the inclusion of  “gender-based violence” in the treaty criteria; the Holy See and a number of African states disagreed.

Everyone except the U.S. wanted ammunition in the treaty, a popular but impractical piece of symbolism. And the European Union demanded the right to sign the treaty, which provoked China to make a Godfather-style offer: if the E.U. revoked the arms embargo imposed after the Tiananmen Square massacre by Friday evening, China would drop its objection to an E.U. signature.

Fortunately, the E.U. did not get a chance to take China up on that cynical but revealing offer. Indeed, if the conference had had a bit more cynicism, it might have run better.

One insider summed up the misplaced idealism that sank it. When asked if a month was not too little time to negotiate a treaty on this enormous subject between 193 nations, the answer was quick: “If we gave them a week, they’d get it done in a week.” As it turns out, they didn’t, and they couldn’t.

But this is not the end. The subject will likely be taken up again in the U.N. General Assembly meeting in the fall, where the driving question will be whether to resume work on the basis of the final draft text. In the interim, the U.N.’s Programme of Action on Small Arms, which meets in a review conference in late August, will try to pick up the slack.

The NGO community has one big advantage: it doesn’t quit. And it will always have the U.S. to blame for the results of its own over-confidence.

As the conference broke up, the U.S. delegation was explaining that it got close: call it the “one more heave” theory. That’s a wise thing to say, but it won’t deflect the hostility to the U.S., which was spilling over Twitter in the conference’s dying moments.

And certainly the U.S. delegation did America proud, speaking with authority at every opportunity. The problem is not in the text. It is certainly not in the U.S., which in the Obama administration has the best friend it is ever likely to have.

The problem is the concept of the treaty itself, which the administration joined the NGOs in backing. The collapse of the ATT is a defeat, a modest and tactical one, for NGO-driven diplomacy. It turns out that, in the end, true belief is not enough.

Ted Bromund is senior research fellow in The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, at the Washington-based think tank, The Heritage Foundation

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