The month of July was an acrimonious one for those on opposite sides of the arms control debate. More so than usual, that is. Hosted by the United Nations, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) Conference met this summer with the goal of producing a binding document that would regulate the legal sale of arms between states. That didn’t quite happen. But rumors of the Treaty’s death are extremely exaggerated.
In the waning hours of the conference, the ‘final’ text that was under debate satisfied absolutely nobody. NGOs like Oxfam and Amnesty International insisted that it was riddled with too many loopholes that would prevent meaningful implementation. Gun rights advocates in the United States had been on a four-week bender to ensure that it would receive absolutely no domestic support if the text passed. They needn’t have worried; seemingly impervious to the raucous debate going on outside of Turtle Bay, the most drama that emerged on the last day had little to do with the issues being discussed externally. While the United States has taken the heat for ‘torpedoing’ the Treaty and ending the Conference in failure, it wasn’t alone – several other states, from those with questionable motives like Russia to democracies like India, quickly lined up behind the US proposal to delay acceptance.
The key word there is ‘delay’. A Report of the Conference was adopted in lieu of an actual vote, so the document wasn’t actually rejected, pushing the text back to the General Assembly. And that’s where the fun begins anew.
There are six Main Committees of the General Assembly, each composed of the full 193 Member States of the UN. Two of them have a credible mandate to allow for the debate of the text: the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) and the Sixth Committee (Legal). While either one of them, or potentially both, could have the Arms Trade Treaty on their agenda when the Committees open for business in October, it’s likely that it will stay with GA1, which had the item during the last session.
From there, Member States will determine whether to utilize the GA for editing the draft of the ATT or whether a second round of negotiations would take place at another Conference. The United States would clearly prefer the latter; when the Obama Administration shifted from the Bush years’ opposition to the Treaty talks, it wasn’t without hesitation. In the 2009 General Assembly Resolution that provided the framework for the Conference (A/RES/64/48), it was determined that the talks would proceed by consensus. That provision proved a major stumbling block to adopting the text in July.
This veto ability may have had several delegations grumbling, but it was the smart choice for the United States. Much like Soviet insistence on a veto in the Security Council back in 1945, the United States was covering its flank both on policy and politics. On policy, they could make sure that any treaty wouldn’t necessarily go against US interests. Politically, the Administration could ensure that the US has the power to stop any treaty from being adopted that displeased us. It is certainly in the US’s best interest to push through another GA Resolution that sets a date for a new Conference.
But it’s far from certain that the US will get its way this time. Now that the text of the ATT is with the General Assembly, it is entirely possible that, with a few edits, the Assembly could hold a vote sometime this year. If that happens, a 2/3s vote of the GA could be enough to approve the text and open the Arms Trade Treaty for signature. It’s impossible to do a whip count for a text that may or may not exist yet, but it would definitely be close.
A final vote in November could also serve what could be a lame-duck Obama Administration in poking a victorious Romney in the eye. Rumor around the United Nations is that the acceptance of the Treaty was delayed in the first place to put off the acceptance of a document that would likely be controversial domestically until after the election. It’s highly probable that, should Romney take the White House, the US’s support for the concept of the ATT would be revoked once more. So it may be better to get something in November over certain rejection after January.
Would that really be for the best? A treaty adopted by two-thirds of the Assembly would likely not have the support of the major arms producers, save maybe Germany and France. And until enough states had ratified to put it into force, it would be just another piece of paper. Which isn’t to say that the enforcement mechanisms within the text were at all strong enough to bring violators in line; they most certainly are not. But the process would run far smoother when those actually producing the weapons being regulated are voluntarily cooperating with the laws surrounding them.
In any case, supporters of a stronger Arms Trade Treaty would be well served by accepting this delay and the US urging for a new round of negotiations. More time would allow supporters to draw on lessons learned from what was a very expensive lobbying effort. And now that there’s an initial text, it will be easier to determine what might discussed in a hypothetical ATT Conference II.
It’s also not guaranteed that a push to get the treaty through the General Assembly would work. Among the issues still to be resolved is whether or not ammunition would join Small Arms and Light Weapons and those systems included in the UN Register on Conventional Weapons under the purview of the Treaty. Western Europe and the African Union are an unlikely pair united on this front, and have been urging its inclusion since Day One – to the dismay of many other states.
Less core to the debate, but still notable, the Arab Group spent the last few hours of the conference pressing that the right to sell arms for groups seeking “self-determination” should be included. Israel was less than sold on this idea – and with good reason. The issue of who would be considered a legitimate buyer will come up again, regardless of where the treaty goes – and could potentially delay acceptance further.
For now, this is a lot of inside baseball on what has the potential to be a wide-reaching text, affecting many aspects of the estimated $60B annual arms trade. Both sides of the debate are regrouping in an attempt to sway the outcome more solidly in their favor, but neither Oxfam nor the NRA will actually be casting a vote in the GA Hall. In the end, it will be the States who decide whether the Treaty lives or dies.