Monday, July 30, 2012

The Arms Trade Treaty: A Postmortem

On July 2, representatives of 193 UN member states met in New York City for the UN Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty. The objective of the conference was to agree on the text of an international agreement that would provide for greater coordination among states in the regulation of trade in conventional weapons. On Friday, the meeting concluded without an agreement. The search for consensus was impeded by the reluctance of some of the biggest arms-trading states, including the United States, to see a treaty adopted.

Expectations for reaching an agreement ran high but were probably unrealistic given three key factors influencing the actual outcome of the negotiations.  First, the conference operated on the basis of a rule of consensus.  This meant that a single state could play the role of spoiler in the negotiations, both with respect to individual provisions of the treaty being considered and the final outcome of the negotiations.  Put differently, all participants had to accept the results in order for a treaty to be adopted.  Second, although most of the world's states were willing to sign on to rules that would make it more difficult to transfer weapons to governments that support terrorism or abuse human rights (and in fact many already adhere to domestic restrictions on arms sales to unsavory regimes), a few states profit greatly from their willingness to sell in a market made less competitive by the moral scruples of others.  The most important aim of a treaty to regulate conventional arms sales was to correct this flaw in the system, but the consensus rule meant that diplomatic pressure--shame, basically--rather than democratic processes would be required to prevent the unscrupulous from shutting down the negotiations.  Finally, one of the major players in global arms sales that also happens to be fairly scrupulous in its choice of customers--the United States--faced a significant domestic barrier to benign participation, much less effective leadership, at the conference.  As it did during the 2001 UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, the American gun lobby said, in effect, "Go ahead, make my day" to all in the American political system who might have considered support for any form of regulation of the international arms trade.  On the eve of the conference's final day, a letter signed by 51 senators that expressed reservations about a potential treaty's effect on gun ownership in the United States--a matter explicitly and consistently excluded from treaty negotiations--was delivered to the White House and the Department of State.

Supporters of the ATT, as the treaty is called, were frustrated that the Obama administration broke with the consensus by claiming on the last day of the conference that more time was needed to reach an acceptable agreement.  The call for more time came after the conference had agreed on limits in the treaty designed to appease those in the United States with concerns about the domestic protection of gun ownership.  (These concerns were, in the first place, "irresponsible demagoguery" and addressed thoroughly in this issue brief from the Arms Control Association.)  It is not the first time that the United States has lobbied to weaken the substantive provisions of a major international agreement only to reject the final product after getting what it wanted.  (See the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.)

While the control of the American gun lobby over the United States Senate combined with the two-thirds majority vote required for treaty ratification makes U.S. participation in an agreement unlikely for the foreseeable future, the rest of the world seems certain to reach agreement on the Arms Trade Treaty soon.  A statement at the end of the conference, issued on behalf of over 90 participating states, called on the conference president, Ambassador Roberto García Moritán of Argentina, "to report to the General Assembly on the progress we have made, so that we can finalize our work."  Such a report is expected to give the UN General Assembly an opportunity to vote on the text of the ATT.  Under the rules of the General Assembly, a two-thirds majority vote would be needed to adopt the treaty and send it on to UN member states for ratification.  No veto would be possible.

As incredible as it sounds, the solution posed by the American gun lobby to the problem of gun violence outside the borders of the United States is the same solution offered for the same problem inside our borders:  more guns.  The putative right to own guns of any size or class is held by merchants of death to be more important than the very real right to life.  This, at least, seems to be the inescapable conclusion to be drawn from opposition to a treaty designed to curb arms sales to governments like those in Syria, Iran, Burma, and North Korea.