Saferworld reflects on the July 2012 Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) Diplomatic Conference
Intense month-long negotiations at the UN in New York on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) ended without agreement at the end of July. Now that the dust has started to settle, Saferworld’s Roy Isbister and Elizabeth Kirkham take some time out to reflect on what happened and what it all means.
The Diplomatic Conference that took place throughout the month of July at the UN in New York marked the culmination of many years of work by governments and civil society – and in particular the members of the Control Arms Coalition– towards a robust and legally-binding global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). In the end, however, we walked away without an agreement, despite the feeling in the final days of the conference that states were close to agreeing a treaty. While we are hugely disappointed with the outcome, the conference made far more progress that anyone thought possible, giving us reason to believe that we could see a reasonable treaty agreed by the end of the year, or at least within the next year.
The art of negotiation
The Diplomatic Conference got off to a false start, as a two-day delay over the status of the Palestinian delegation, followed by wrangling over the programme of work, took up the first week.
Things finally got underway in the second week, and by the third week of the conference the President of the Diplomatic Conference, Ambassador Roberto Garcia Moritán of Argentina, began running informal sessions into the evenings, sometimes until 02.00, in a small room unable to fit all delegations and without translation facilities. By week four, these closed small room sessions began taking place in the daytime, causing upset amongst delegations with limited English and making access difficult for civil society.
Parallel discussions were also taking place amongst small numbers of states by invitation only. Delegates who were in the sessions reported back that these seemed to be the principle means by which negotiations were taking place on critical issues of treaty substance.
Ambassador Moritán also took the unusual approach of providing sections of the treaty text at a time for discussion, instead of presenting a complete text. As time went on, states became increasingly anxious to see the whole draft text, not least because most governments espoused the view that the treaty would need to be viewed as a ‘package’ and that weaknesses in particular areas may be balanced out by strengths in others. In addition, many delegations were reliant on instructions from their capitals, and without a complete text they were not in a position to engage them.
The text is presented
The final week of the conference was a roller coaster. A complete and extremely disappointing text was delivered on the morning of Tuesday 24 July. It was weak in almost all crucial respects. This resulted in 48 intensely worrying hours for the members of the Control Arms Coalition, as it seemed that our nightmare scenario could be unfolding, in which we would either see a bad treaty legitimise weak controls or the collapse of the entire process.
A number of states began vocalising their unhappiness with the text, including Mexico, Côte d'Ivoire, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway and Trinidad and Tobago. When it became clear that a revised text would be released on Thursday, we feared that this could only be an even weaker version of the text.
However, Ambassador Moritán pulled one final rabbit out of his hat – a new draft text (CRP.1) that, while containing some serious problems, was a significant improvement and ultimately something we could work with. Even more unexpected was the growing sense that few, if any states, were preparing to block this text and that Friday might actually deliver a treaty.
Not so fast…
By early morning on the final Friday of the conference, however, a palpable sense of unease had taken over the conference room as rumours emerged that the US was not happy, and discussions with US officials alluded to the need for “more time”.
As the US took the floor, they spared no time in dropping a bombshell - that although the text was in general terms something they could live with, there were still too many things that needed further consideration and were beyond resolution on the final day of the conference. This action immediately emboldened other sceptics, including Russia and North Korea, who followed with similar protestations.
This action by the US was doubly disappointing. First, the text had, in a number of crucial respects, been crafted and in some cases weakened (for example on ammunition), to accommodate US concerns. Second, it became clear that the primary motivation for US reluctance centred on the US Presidential election campaign and fears within the US administration of how an ATT would play out in the US media. Given that the NRA had very successfully (and completely erroneously) portrayed the ATT as an international conspiracy aimed at taking Americans’ guns away, it seemed that President Obama was not willing to take the risk of damaging his re-election prospects by allowing a Treaty to emerge at this time.
Yes we can
The US, through these actions, effectively sank the July 2012 Diplomatic Conference, but not the ATT process as a whole, for several reasons:
- States came very close to agreeing a text. Although in the end several states supported the US line, if the US hadn’t broken ranks, the general view is that nobody else would have.
- The US action produced notable anger and determination by states supportive of a meaningful treaty. In less than a half hour, around half of all UN Member States (90 in total) signed up to a statement calling for states to push on for a treaty as quickly as possible.
The draft text we ended up with (CRP.1) has been appended to the Chair’s paper and forwarded to the UN General Assembly. Although it still contains a number of serious problems and is in need of improvement, it could serve as a good basis for a strong treaty with overwhelming state support.
There is reason to be optimistic that we will end up with something worthwhile, as long as we keep up momentum. The US will also need to be pressured to show leadership and prioritise the needs of those at the sharp end of the under-regulated and irresponsible trade in arms over its domestic electoral politics.
Civil society – notably the Control Arms coalition – worked extremely hard over the month, and played a key role in raising the profile of the ATT at the UN and in capitals. We worked to remind states why we need a treaty, and provided technical support to help ensure that the kind of language needed to give the ATT a humanitarian and human rights impact was at the front and centre of debate on the conference floor. We will continue to work together to try and achieve a robust and legally binding treaty as quickly as possible.