by Dr. Robert Zuber, Global Action to Prevent War
The UN General Assembly’s mandate for an arms trade treaty (ATT) negotiating conference expired at 6PM Friday with a whimper more than a bang. Many of us in the room wondered whether or not Ambassador Moritán had one more trick up his proverbial sleeve, or one more attempt to transform wariness from some delegations into adopted language.
Now it is time for a short summer break. Many of the ATT negotiators will need to prepare for their UN Programme of Action on small arms (PoA) Review Conference responsibilities (to take place at the end of August) as well as for the opening of the UN General Assembly in September. We’re all tired now, having spent the past month sitting, listening, wondering, probing, and, more practically, sitting on floors to negotiate and looking, often in vain, for translated materials and workable headsets.
Shortly, the ‘second guessing’ and self-analysis will begin in earnest. What went wrong? What could we have done differently? What do we need to learn that can help us moving forward?
It will take a few days of sleeping late and catching up with other work before most of us will be able to internalize assessment of the long road to last Friday. But it won’t be long before we will need to weigh in on next steps, more specifically the process that can and should be mandated in an attempt to finalize a Treaty and also the ‘status’ of the draft Treaty language.
None of us yet knows enough to accurately and comprehensively outline the learning curves for ATT proponents going forward. But I think that some of these learning themes should include the following:
- We should rethink the policy of acceding to the demands of any one member state regarding working methods for treaty negotiations. The consensus provision turned out to be a burden too extreme to overcome, especially in this instance as it came at the request of a member state that would likely never ratify the final product and whose policies on transfers are already of high quality. At the UN, states can learn to work with treaty and related obligations, as we've seen in the case of the International Criminal Court and other structures. Accommodating a single state’s interests on protocol, working methods, or content must be addressed with extreme caution.
- We should also rethink how we ‘sell’ the ATT to the global public and avoid generating expectations that put pressure on a document that was never likely to fulfill those expectations. The ATT in its most attractive form might have had an impact on diverted transfers several years down the road. It never was conceived as a disarmament obligation or as necessarily the ‘game changer’ for the UN system that many of its loudest proponents claimed. We squandered a lot of enthusiasm in my view by misrepresenting the potential of this ATT, and possibly also (if inadvertently) did some damage to the UN’s credibility on security issues as well.
- In a similar vein, the lack of interest in the UN—how it works and the diverse agencies that address peace and security issues related to this ATT—was troublesome. The singular focus on this treaty by many NGOs was rarely shared by delegations. As hard as they worked on this treaty, diplomats simply don’t have the luxury to ignore all of the complementary concerns, including gender-based violence, international justice, and atrocity crime prevention, that define much of the security-related activity elsewhere in the UN. The ATT never had, and should not have, the burden of defining UN security priorities. This document, even if all its loopholes were closed, fairness between exporters and importers were guaranteed, and human rights language punctuated many of its articles, would be nothing more or less than complementary support for other security related responsibilities for which the UN already has demonstrated considerable robustness. The decision to have the ATT negotiated at the UN should have occasioned more interest in the institution (and its many obligations) that was presumed to ‘house’ this treaty and help frame its responsibilities.
- The vast leverage of human energy to create a mechanism to regulate transfers has obscured a fundamental problem for at least some of the NGOs who sought to engage the process. For these NGOS, including Global Action to Prevent War (GAPW), the mandate on transfers is to eliminate them and not institutionalize them. While admittedly not always ‘realistic,’ we are committed to ending the reliance of states on weapons for their security and to free as many funds for military purposes as possible and to make them available for social development and environmental health. We participated in the ATT process in part because the negotiators and implementers were our partners in disarmament affairs, but also because a case can be made that regulatory coherence is sometimes a suitable prelude to stigmatization. Our hope for an ATT is that it provides new opportunities to stigmatize the staggering arms trade, not to provide new impetus for its growth. Balancing the strong desire for a minimal arms trade with the responsibility to provide guidance on a regulation-driven arms trade process was a challenge with which GAPW struggled.
There is more, but this is sufficient to suggest a summer assignment for those of us hoping to restore some ATT-related momentum come fall.
One final note: The ‘team’ of organizations that made up the ATT Monitor—but more specifically Ray Acheson and Katherine Prizeman—did their best to provide thoughtful commentary to diplomats from missions and capitals seeking to find consensus on a text that was actually worth consensus. As both of these women have made clear in recent days, the ‘final’ draft treaty language fell short of that standard at several levels. Should we have had a treaty adopted on Friday, some truly regrettable loopholes might have become institutionalized. Those who secretly expressed some relief that this treaty didn’t make it to the ‘finish line’ have a valid point. The lines defining when a treaty becomes more of a liability than an asset were certainly in full view here.