After a month of procedural wrangling, intense lobbying, heavy campaigning and frantic late night negotiations, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) conference came to a frayed inconclusive end last Friday as skeptical states like China, Russia, Venezuela, North Korea and Cuba, joined by the United States, called for more time to complete what they saw as an incomplete draft.
The Friday morning plenary session started normally, following a long night of negotiations. The chair, veteran Argentine diplomat Ambassador Roberto García Moritán, presided as New Zealand and Bulgaria opened the discussion, pointing out some of the remaining loopholes, though asserting that the latest text was a significant improvement over an earlier, rather problematic, draft. They represented a broad consensus among a large number of states that, though imperfect, the Chair’s text would curtail the worst excesses of the trade in conventional weapons, currently less controlled than the market in bananas.
A chill descended over the room, however, when China declared that though it considered the draft “a very good basis”, it would not accept the demand by European Union, East African Community and ECOWAS states that “regional economic integration organizations” be allowed to accede to the Treaty.
“Don’t underestimate China’s political will,” the delegate warned, saying that he had “no room for flexibility” on this issue unless the EU would lift its arms embargo on China by the end of the day. “Otherwise,” he shrugged, there was “nothing China can do… C’est la vie, et la vie c’est ca.”
The US delegate spoke next. “We want to join the consensus,” he said, but “this text is not yet the text. “At this point,” he continued, “my capital does not have the time that is needed” to review and address the problems it sees in the text. There was an audible gasp in the room, followed, a few minutes later, by a frantic email exchange between campaigners. Had the US scuttled the conference? Is this about the presidential elections? Is Obama afraid of a conservation reaction?
Campaigners noted with irritation that the day before, while US diplomats up in New York were supposedly negotiating an Arms Trade Treaty, Assistant Secretary of State Andrew J. Shapiro was boasting to a group of defense contractors in Washington DC that the US was having “a record-breaking year for Foreign Military Sales.”
A variety of progressive states, notably Norway and Denmark, followed the US bombshell with expressions of support for a strong and robust treaty. But the US statement had already torn a hole through the pretence that everyone in the room was aiming for the same outcome. Seeing their opening, a variety of authoritarian states pushed through this tear in the process, shredding it even further.
North Korea said they wanted to make “a strong recommendation to have more time.” Cuba agreed, saying “we need more time to continue to work” and that the chair should give “serious consideration” to not having a final session. Russia, which has been generally quiet in the negotiations, said it found the text “unsatisfactory”, and wanted to ask the UN General Assembly to “extend the mandate of this conference for another two to three weeks.”
(For further analysis of why the USA often ends up in the strange company of authoritarian states when taking positions on the global regulation of arms, read my article “Unlikely Bedfellows: US and Iranian Shared Positions on the Emerging Global Laws of War” posted in Global Policy’s online comment and editorial section in March.)
At the end of the plenary, a series of ambassadors who had chaired intense parallel consultations, all reported back on the remaining lack of consensus on whether and how the treaty would cover ammunition, gender-based violence and other key areas of contention. As the meeting ended, I watched as the cluster of gun lobbyists seated at the back of the room, bounded out into the hallway smiling, laughing, joking.
After lunch, campaigners associated with Control Arms, the civil society coalition advocating for a robust ATT, had an impromptu meeting in an unused conference room in the UN’s North Lawn Building. Dragging chairs into a corner, they quickly tried to discern what had happened and how they might influence what came next. There was still one more plenary left and rumors circulated of a last ditch flurry of negotiations behind closed doors. It was unclear whether the chair or progressive states would try to force a vote on the Treaty, whether a new, weaker text might appear, backed by the permanent five members of the Security Council or whether the conference would simply end unrequited.
While tinged with resignation, the campaigners also cheered themselves with the thought that by showing up in New York City and engaging in good faith negotiations, the majority of states were beginning to accept the norm stigmatizing the transfer of arms to those who abuse human rights and violate humanitarian law.
There was an air of nervous apprehension in the conference room as delegates, press and civil society gathered for the afternoon plenary. This was only heightened when Moritán quickly suspended the meeting for a further hour of “consultations.” “The mood is tense and despondent,” a campaigner tweeted, as the clock ticked down and Control Arms activists began to accept the likelihood of an anticlimax
When the chair returned to the room, he circulated a report to the UN General Assembly that simply stated that the conference had not reached a consensus. It was adopted by the states unanimously – the only consensus from the conference was that there was no consensus. Moritán then offered his closing statement.
“The conference has been a sporting event, track and field, like an obstacle course, where we have had to complete, in the shortest time possible, a series of hurdles, some perhaps a little too high,” he said. But to say more, he continued with uncharacteristic sharpness, “would be diplomatically incorrect. … I regret very much that things didn’t work out as brilliantly as I would have liked.”
Moritán then opened the floor for remarks from states. Mexico went first, read remarks prepared by 90 diverse countries from around the world that “had expected to adopt…today” a “strong and robust Arms Trade Treaty.” Before he began, he read the name of every country that had signed on to the statement – Britain, Trinidad and Tobago, France, Nigeria, Israel, Bangladesh, Uganda, New Zealand, Morocco and so many more. It sounded like a litany, a liturgical recitation.
“We are disappointed, but we are not discouraged,” he intoned. “Compromises have had to be made, but overall the text … has the overwhelming support of the international community as a base for carrying forward our work. We are determined to secure an Arms Trade Treaty as soon as possible.”
Many of the statements that followed, from delegates who were fatigued with the strain of too many nocturnal bargaining sessions, were almost mournful, surprisingly pointed for an arena of diplomatic decorum.
“We all know who was responsible,” remarked a Brazilian diplomat, “but I don’t want to belabour the point.” The delegate of the UK, which had spent considerable political capital in trying to get the US on board, was particularly emphatic. “We are tired and a little sad,” she said, but “an ATT is coming. … We had a strong text on the table and the UK could have signed up on the spot to that.”
At 5.45 pm the speakers’ list was empty and Moritán adjourned the meeting. Four long weeks of intense politicking were over – now was the time for post-mortem and divining the chances of resurrection. As he left the conference room, Moritán was mobbed by a swarm of reporters. The lobby of the North Lawn Building glowed with the eerie artificial light of television cameras as diplomats, pundits, lobbyists and campaigners offered their competing angles.
Within a couple hours, the Control Arms advocates – shorts and t-shirts substituted for their professional attire – had decamped to the upper room of a Midtown pub. A desperate giddiness prevailed as campaigners, joined a few intermingling diplomats (including a few responsible for the conference’s demise), sought solace in liquor, a spontaneous sing-a-long and the opening ceremony of the Olympics, piped in to wall-mounted flat-screen TV.
A great cheer went up as they watched Palau process into the London stadium. The tiny South Pacific island nation – population 21,000 – had been so supportive of the Control Arms coalition that it had credentialed a couple campaigners to act as members of its diplomatic delegation.
Wineglass in hand, I floated from one group of commiserating activists to another. Unsurprisingly, many shared feelings of exhaustion, resentment and despondency. President Obama was the target of particular bitterness. In 2008, he had promised to “lead the way” in “international initiatives to limit harm to civilians caused by conventional weapons.” Now the humanitarian disarmament community felt betrayed.
“Stunning cowardice by Obama administration at #ArmsTreaty talks today,” an Amnesty International representative tweeted that evening. “@WhiteHouse about-face ends progress.”
But the despite the anger, there was a surprising mood of gritty determination. We have to keep our eye on the long-term development of norms, campaigners told me. We have another chance, when the UN General Assembly meets again in the fall. We have won the discursive victory. We have changed the conversation.
As I looked around at the crowded bar, I reflected on the audacity of Control Arms’ campaign. They had assembled a ragtag band of activists, policy wonks, activists, aid workers, underpaid interns and unpaid volunteers and gone up against a multi-billion dollar industry. They had deployed the artful photograph, the protest stunt, the craftily worded tweet against well-heeled lobbyists and militaries armed with tanks. The message from the campaign the next morning was unbowed and defiant:
“The fight to end the illegal and irresponsible arms trade goes on,” the Control Arms statement declared. “The lack of agreement on a final text was disappointing but not the end of the story. In spite of today’s lack of agreement, momentum is gathering for an international and legally-binding treaty to bring the arms trade under control.”
For more background on the Arms Trade Treaty process, see Matthew Bolton’s earlier blog posting and journal article for Global Policy. Read his blog at politicalminefields.com; follow him on Twitter, @politicalmines.
Matthew Bolton, Department of Political Science, Dyson College of Arts and Sciences, Pace University New York City.