The four-week United Nations diplomatic conference in New York to negotiate an international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) has reached its half-way mark. It would be fair to ask what has been accomplished to date. The blunt answer is not much. More troubling is the prospect that the final two weeks will be held hostage to states that never wanted a treaty in the first place.
The conference started badly with the first two days lost to procedural wrangling over the ongoing, unresolved political status of Palestine, and the Holy See. The third day disappeared with the U.S. national holiday on July 4. Much time in the following days was absorbed by high level national statements that repeated positions delivered at earlier preparatory conference sessions. Together these events delayed any real treaty debate until the middle of week two, and significant discussion of treaty text did not commence until Friday the 13th — perhaps not the best day to begin detailed negotiations.
This is not to say that there were not advances, and even inspirational moments, to the first two weeks of proceedings. In opening remarks to the conference, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon underlined the humanitarian purpose of the treaty and called on states to seize a rare opportunity. “Our common goal is clear” he stated, “a robust and legally binding arms trade treaty that will have a real impact on the lives of those millions of people suffering from the consequences of armed conflict, repression and armed violence.” In a video message in week two, Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, Nobel Peace Laureate and President of Liberia, reminded delegates of why her nation’s recent history was testament to the need for a strong treaty. Equally important, many smaller African, Latin American and Pacific nations became more vocal as the conference progressed to speak in favour of important treaty elements, including a basic demand that small arms and light weapons must be within the treaty’s scope.
Still, the next two weeks of ATT negotiations face real challenges. The opposition by the international gun lobby is a minor, but irritating hurdle, especially the deliberate misrepresentations of the treaty by the U.S. National Rifle Association. The NRA vice-president, Wayne La Pierre, spoke in front of delegates but not to them. His NRA-recorded remarks were clearly aimed at frightening (and prying money from) his constituents. More significantly, the small minority of states that oppose a meaningful Arms Trade Treaty – Algeria, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Syria and a few others – have regularly and negatively intervened, using rules of procedure and semantics to slow negotiations. These “skeptic” states have been better organized than treaty supporting states. The latter will need to up their game if they wish to prevent the skeptics from running the conference into the ground.
To date Canada has been effectively an observer of the proceedings. It submitted a statement to repeat its position announced earlier this year, followed by specific interventions on treaty preamble and criteria that were drawn from the statement. Otherwise, a few technical suggestions have shown that the delegation is awake but far from inspired. It appears that Canada is waiting for the conference to collapse.
And collapse of the treaty conference has seemed distinctly possible since the 2009 demand by the U.S. that it achieve agreement by consensus. When a determined group of states positions itself to present views diametrically opposed to the majority it is difficult to believe that consensus on a meaningful treaty text can prevail. There is a growing view among conference participants that the two remaining weeks is insufficient time to square the consensus circle. This is why it will be crucial for states who support a strong and comprehensive Arms Trade Treaty to generate a meaningful text first, and agreement with skeptical states second. Then, rather than the conference delivering agreement on a weak treaty, the end of July could see a text supported by diverse (but not all) states that is strong enough to address the UN Secretary-General’s humanitarian goal. Such a text could then be taken to other UN forums where consensus is not required for final agreement. That would be the real success of the July negotiations.