by Dr. Natalie J. Goldring
During the first few days of the “final” ATT conference, diplomats appeared to be making steady progress toward an Arms Trade Treaty that might be worthy of the name. Countries seemed focused on creating the strongest possible treaty, with useful interventions on the scope of the treaty and criteria for evaluating—and denying—arms transfers that were likely to pose humanitarian and human rights concerns. Joint statements from groups of diverse countries addressed issues such as public reporting, gender-based violence, and development. Moreover, the specific text suggestions offered by the so-called “skeptics” indicated a focus on ensuring that their interests were reflected in a treaty text, rather than simply blocking progress toward a treaty.
The beginning of the conference showed the UN at its best—dealing with critically important issues in a serious manner. The voices of victims were heard in the halls and side events, and were also reflected in the country statements. The focus of many of the discussions was on ways to reduce human suffering, which is, after all, the most important reason to do this work in the first place. Countries proposed many ways to strengthen the 26 July draft, and a “legal scrub” converted that draft into a document that looked more like a treaty text and less like a glorified resolution, albeit while introducing additional issues of concern.
Sadly, momentum reversed after the first few days. The President’s draft text of 22 March failed to resolve key problems with the text. This resulted in dozens of delegations spending two more days arguing for many of the same substantive changes that they had already advocated: full coverage of ammunition in the scope, the replacement of “overriding” with “substantial,” and stronger human rights language. The 22 March draft text was a major disappointment, as NGOs had been led to believe it would be significantly stronger than the legal scrub.
Inside the conference room, several of the “skeptics” reverted to offering lengthy polemical statements about the Treaty, the state of international affairs, and the nature of offenses committed against them by their adversaries. Some of these countries seemed to go to great lengths to avoid offering any material or text suggestions that would be useful to consideration of the ATT. Nuclear weapons and climate change were both featured in such exchanges.
At this writing, Tuesday’s session has concluded, with a “final” text due to delegates on Wednesday morning. Senior members of some delegations were seen only in passing on Tuesday, if at all. In the case of at least one P5 country, this left the country seats occupied by relatively junior diplomats. The energy—and the negotiating power—had left the room.
If a treaty is in fact being negotiated, it is happening in the shadows. Not only are NGOs being shut out of the process, many governments also seem to be well outside the inner circle.
This part of the process has shown the UN at its worst, with secret negotiations apparently open only to the select few. The NGOs, which have been largely responsible for bringing the attention of the world to the costs of the international weapons trade, have been shut out of many of the discussions. This means that much of the expertise on what’s actually happening on the ground has also been absent from the discussions of the treaty text. A few handfuls of NGO representatives are serving on individual country delegations, but most NGO representatives have been barred from the rooms where many of the most substantive discussions and debates have been taking place.
Arguably, achieving consensus on a weak Arms Trade Treaty would be the worst possible outcome of this conference. A weak treaty would be a step backwards. It would risk undermining current human rights and humanitarian standards, while potentially legitimizing questionable arms industry practices. If the text that is released on Wednesday does not meet the standards for a robust treaty, supporters of a strong ATT will need to display the courage necessary to block consensus.
In the end, it may simply not be possible to complete an Arms Trade Treaty this week. If a treaty is not agreed, this will be the second failed attempt to negotiate an Arms Trade Treaty by consensus. Another failed attempt would further strengthen fears that the UN has been paralyzed by its insistence on consensus, which has effectively been defined as unanimity.
It’s time to talk seriously about other options. The old adage, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,” comes to mind. If we continue to permit and support a treaty negotiation process that’s based on consensus, we should assume that the results will be similarly flawed.
It’s time to bring this process out into the open. Whether that means taking a stronger ATT text to the General Assembly for a vote or convening interested states outside the UN to write a robust treaty, a new set of tactics may breathe new life into this struggling process. We need to break out of this “Groundhog Day” cycle of repeating failed approaches, and move on.