Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Running interference

by Dr. Robert Zuber, Global Action to Prevent War
In response to the Chair's new paper on the preamble and principles distributed on Tuesday in Main Committee I, delegations were still largely making statements about 'what they want' and 'what they won't accept' rather than 'what they can live with' with a view towards a consensus treaty with only 8 scheduled days of negotiating sessions remaining.
We do not make the assumption that the parts of the Chair's new paper that have so far avoided direct criticism are therefore completely acceptable to all delegations. Many delegates have reserved the right to 'return to the text' to suggest future changes more often than they have affirmed existing language. We still have a ways to go to reach consensus and delegations will need to soften their positions a bit more in order to get there.

Calling for more 'softness' on positions does not imply disrespect of objections raised. Indeed, in the writings from Global Action to Prevent War and some other civil society organizations over these weeks, we have expressed our understanding that a weak treaty focused only on exporting states with little independent structure and only token review processes is likely to raise legitimate skepticism by smaller importing states, especially states that are currently experiencing internal conflict or are at political 'loggerheads' with the major producing states.

This skepticism has taken many forms in the ATT conference room, but one form is the insistence by some delegations on the UN Charter principle of 'non-interference' in states’ internal affairs. Our own reflection is that one of the reasons governments seek to participate in the United Nations is to 'portion out' sovereignty and suspend some of their trust issues for the sake of norms, resolutions, and treaties that allow states to use the collective will and resources of the international community to enhance their own security and development options. In essence, governments 'use' their UN membership to obtain resources or other assistance through collaborative engagement that they could not possibly acquire left solely to their own devices. Some 'portion out' more liberally than others, some trust processes like the ATT more than others, but all benefit in one way or another from engaging the UN’s many agencies and structures.

As readers may know, some governments vigorously claim principles of non-interference within the context of debates on the norm of the “Responsibility to Protect,” which seeks to protect citizens when their own governments cannot or will not protect them. Of course, there are many forms of 'interference' other than those involving the most coercive response options, but often when governments invoke this formula they have in mind responses that will have the most severe implications for national sovereignty and security. This also seems to be true in cases where ‘non-interference’ is invoked by delegations in the ATT context.

Thoughtless, reckless, or politically motivated interference is a grave concern for many states and we believe that this concern is generally appropriate. Successful and sustainable interference, on the other hand, requires skill, fairness, and restraint. Even relatively benign 'interferences,' such as trying to stop a family feud, require careful, even-handed listening and restrained responses. While some governments might seem guilty of an oversimplification on interference, we should keep in mind that all treaty negotiations tend to stretch boundaries of trust, and negotiations on weapons transfers are widely assumed to have particularly high consequences for states. If we get this very wrong, and we must not, we will spend the next few years cleaning up logistical and political messes rather than focusing together on eliminating poorly regulated and diverted arms transfers.

We at Global Action have our own concerns about some of the ways in which this treaty is taking shape as well as concern about the intensity of some of the objections put forth by diplomats. That said, we have noted a softening of the tone in the room, even if not yet accompanied by sufficient nuance in the formulation of objections. We urge even more softness as the days progress on issues such as non-interference. Indeed, we urge a greater willingness by states to nuance and contextualize all of their positions over these next few days—even to share more about the things they can 'live with'—so that we can spend less energy avoiding interference and more energy 'running interference' for a successful treaty process.