How the 2012 UN Arms Trade Treaty Conference Really Died
By Jeff Moran | Geneva
Advocacy and diplomatic discussions started again last week with the opening day of the UN General Assembly First Committee meetings. These meetings end on 6 November 2012 (Election Day in the United States), and follow-up the failed United Nations (UN) Conference in July to formally negotiate by consensus a legally binding Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).
Contrary to prevailing reportage and opinion, the UN ATT Conference was less a failure in diplomacy, or a victory by the firearms industry and the National Rifle Association for that matter, than it was the result of abortive advocacy lead by the UK-based Control Arms campaign and its unrealistically expansive vision for a more extreme trade treaty than consensus could sustain.
The Control Arms vision for the ATT encompasses 14 specific treaty issue areas under three categories: Scope, Transfer Criteria, and Implementation. Scope issues areas include Ammunition, Brokering/Dealers, Other Conventional Weapons, and Small Arms/Light Weapons. Transfer Criteria issue areas include Armed Violence, Corruption, Gender-based Violence, Human Rights, International Humanitarian Law, and Socio-Economic Development. Implementation issue areas include Final Provisions, Implementation, Verification, and Victim Assistance.
The Control Arms vision across these treaty issue areas can be found on their subsidiary armstreaty.org website. The details of their ATT vision are quoted below:
1. Ammunition. Including in the scope of the ATT all “ammunition, munitions, and explosives.”
2. Brokering/Dealers. Including in the scope of the ATT brokering and dealing. “Brokering generally refers to arranging or mediating arms deals and buying or selling arms on one’s own account or for others, as well as organizing services such as transportation, insurance or financing related to arms transfers, and the actual provision of such services.”
3. Other Conventional Weapons. Including in the scope of the ATT “all conventional weapons, related components and production equipment, beyond Small Arms and Ammunition” which are “covered by the 7 categories in UN Register of Conventional Arms and of other conventional weapons, components and equipment.”
4. Small Arms/Light Weapons. Including in the scope of the ATT “conventional weapons that can be carried by an individual or a group of individuals (including revolvers, machine guns, hand-held grenade launchers; portable anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns and missile systems; and mortars of calibers less than 100 mm. etc).”
5. Armed Violence. Including as a parameter of the ATT “provisions to restrict transfers that could provoke, fuel or exacerbate armed conflict and armed violence.”
6. Corruption. Including as a parameter of the ATT “provisions to restrict transfers that could exacerbate or institutionalize ‘corruption’ or ‘corrupt practices’. In the context of arms transfers, corrupt practices include bribing of state officials with commissions and kickbacks provided by arms producers and traders to facilitate a transfer agreement.”
7. Gender-based Violence. Including as a parameter of the ATT provisions to “restrict the transfer of arms where there is a substantial risk that the arms under consideration will be used to perpetuate or facilitate acts of gender-based violence, including sexual violence.”
8. Human Rights. Including as a parameter of the ATT “provisions to restrict transfers when there is substantial risk that the arms will be used in serious violations of international human rights law, including fueling persistent, grave or systematic violations or patterns of abuse.”
9. International Humanitarian Law. Including as a parameter of the ATT “provisions to restrict transfers when there is substantial risk of the arms being used in serious violations of international humanitarian law (IHL). This assessment would include consideration of whether a recipient that is, or has been, engaged in an armed conflict has committed serious violations of IHL or has taken measures to prevent violations of IHL, including punishing those responsible.”
10. Socio-Economic Development. Including as a parameter of the ATT “provisions to restrict transfers that could hinder, undermine or adversely affect socio-economic development.”
11. Final Provisions. Including in the text of the ATT “effective implementation mechanisms of the Arms Trade Treaty, including criminalization of treaty violations and an Implementation Support Unit (ISU) to coordinate international cooperation.”
12. Implementation. Including in the text of the ATT final provisions and entry into force mechanisms. “Effective final provisions would not allow reservations that would be incompatible with the Treaty’s purpose. Effective entry into force mechanisms would not include a requirement for excessive number of ratifications, nor for specific states or groups of states to ratify the treaty, before it could enter into force.”
13. Verification. Including in the text of the ATT “effective verification mechanisms of the Arms Trade Treaty. Effective verification includes meaningful and specific annual reporting, external referral for dispute resolution, annual meetings of states party (MSP) and five-yearly Treaty Review Conferences (RevCons), and the creation of an Implementation Support Unit (ISU) to assist with, collect and analyze reports.”
14. Victim Assistance. Including in the text of the ATT “the recognition of the rights of victims of armed violence and acknowledgment of States’ commitment to provide assistance to victims.”
Reaching consensus during the UN ATT Conference was certainly possible, and potentially a constructive endeavor for all nations from an interest point of view. But consensus was not likely because a lot of countries thought aspects of the emerging ATT were potentially threatening to national sovereignty for example. Nonetheless, the popular narrative is that the United States killed the Conference when it asked for more time to consider the draft treaty on the final day of the Conference. This expedient and seemingly anti-American explanation doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, especially when you put the Conference into context and examine the armstreaty.org database about opposition to the ATT.
The relevant historical context for what happened at the Conference extends back to at least the creation of the International Action Network On Small Arms (IANSA) in 1999. Important context also includes the recorded debate between the leaders of IANSA and the National Rifle Association in 2004 along with several formal rounds of preparatory negotiations since 2009 for example. This is admittedly a lot of history for one to casually consider, but after surveying this period, and listening to diplomats based in Geneva, a pattern of overdone, unfocussed, and ultimately counterproductive advocacy emerges. This appears to be due, at least in part, to self-inflicted wounds from years of overselling positions and distractive issue framing, which, in turn, appears to have damaged their credibility and cause. Ultimately, humanitarian groups, led by an unraveling Control Arms coalition, sabotaged consensus for an ATT by pushing diplomats too hard for far too much and provoked dispositive sovereignty concerns across the Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East in addition to the United States.
Not only was there no consensus on the final draft ATT as a whole in those final days of the Conference, but there remains no consensus for any of the 14 treaty elements Control Arms continues to advocate for, and opposition to them is growing. This can be evidenced in detail on armstreaty.org. While the data on armstreaty.org are not an official record of country delegation viewpoints during the final days of the ATT conference, they serve as a useful proxy indicating size, scope, and direction of opposition to the ATT as Control Arms envisions it.
Clearly, the most widely opposed ATT issue areas fall under the creation of transfer conditionality / restrictive criteria on the international transfers of arms. The most objected-to transfer criteria remain those related to Socio-Economic Development and Human Rights. Thirty-nine and 35 countries oppose these criteria respectively, the US not being among them. The US opposed only three provisions cutting across treaty scope and implementation issue areas only.
The accompanying table below is made from armstreaty.org data and evidences the above points. It also conveys more important details about the lack of consensus for an ATT. The table indicates, from a treaty content point of view, where opposition is greatest, the relative size of the opposition, and the direction of opposition since the Conference. 
In short, the table below helps show why the assertion that the US is mainly responsible for killing consensus at the UN ATT Conference is not only false, but absurd. Here are nine take-aways:
1. There are 195 total instances where a country opposes an aspect of the envisioned ATT (consensus requires zero instances or at least a willingness to no longer publicly oppose, and Control Arms attributes just 3 of these 195 to the US).
2. There is no consensus for any of the provisions across all three treaty issue area categories (Scope, Transfer Criteria, and Implementation).
3. Total opposition to the Control Arms vision has actually grown in the months after the UN ATT Conference (by 12 net instances, or 7%).
4. There is a two-way tie for issue areas experiencing the fastest opposition growth: Socio- Economic Development and International Humanitarian Law (both together account for 2/3 of the growth in total opposition).
5. The most-opposed category of treaty issue area is Transfer Criteria (54% share of total opposition) and opposition has grown (by 11 instances, or 6%, since 29 August 2012).
6. The most-opposed treaty issue area by country count is Socio-Economic Development (39 countries opposed).
7. The most-opposed issue area by percentage of countries opposed (relative to total number of countries assessed) is Human Rights (33%).
8. The least-opposed provision by country count relates to including the activities of arms Brokering/Dealing within the scope of the ATT (2 countries opposed).
9. There is a three-way tie for the least opposed provisions by percentage of countries opposed (relative to total number of countries assessed): Brokering/Dealers, Armed Violence, and Final Provisions (all at 2% opposed).
Rightly understood, Control Arms’ own data help to correct the false narrative about why the UN ATT Conference failed to reach consensus this summer. Such data clearly show that the prospects for consensus were grim at best, and are getting worse. The data also suggest that even if the US enthusiastically embraced the final draft ATT, other countries would have probably worked together to prevent consensus anyway.
It is not a giant leap in logic to see that Cuba, Iran, or Venezuela (countries that each oppose many more treaty provisions than the US does) probably would have killed consensus themselves, especially if the United States indicated it was going to sign the treaty. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, for one, faced an election within months. Being the consensus breaker would have surely boosted President Chavez’ domestic political standing, and perhaps his image as a regional guardian against outside meddling.
Now that time has passed, some humanitarian law specialists and ATT advocates are even asserting the draft Arms Trade Treaty would actually be worse for humanity than if there were no treaty at all. They claim that the draft ATT in its current form represents a “retrogression” in international norms.
In conclusion, UN ATT Conference died from lack of consensus. This death was due less to failed diplomacy, or pressure by the firearms industry and gun rights groups, than it was the result of many years of abortive advocacy lead by an unraveling UK-based Control Arms campaign. Control Arms’ broad vision for the ATT was more extreme than consensus could sustain. Ultimately, humanitarian groups sabotaged consensus for an ATT by pushing diplomats too hard for far too much and provoked dispositive sovereignty concerns across the Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East in addition to the United States.
Perhaps a more extreme version of the ATT will be born outside the UN altogether. If this happens, it would likely share a destiny not unlike like the 1997 Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel landmines. Ottawa was born outside the UN because an anti-personnel mine ban did not get traction inside it. Russia, China, and the United States have still not ratified or acceded to the treaty. And while 33 other states have not ratified or acceded to the Ottawa Treaty either, supporters argue that the treaty is emerging as an international norm on its way to acquiring the force of international law over time.
More likely, the UN negotiations by consensus for the ATT will pick-up from 18-28 March 2013. Hopefully, extra time to negotiate by consensus will result in something all countries can live with. However, if human rights advocates and state delegations conclude that they are going to get a treaty that is worse than no treaty, and an ambitious country such as Mexico has enough stamina and fortitude to lead after what has been quite a long process, the ATT negotiations will probably exit the UN system. Consensus rules would be abandoned to majority rules, the treaty will become much more restrictive, and the process would serve to further institutionalize deep international divisions. As the specter of major catastrophic conflict looms larger over volatile regions of the world, more division is the last thing the international community needs.
About The Author
Jeff Moran, a Principal at TSM Worldwide LLC, specializes in the international defense, security, and firearms industries. Previously Mr. Moran was a strategic marketing leader for a multi-billion dollar unit of a public defense & aerospace company, a military diplomat, and a nationally ranked competitive rifle shooter. He is currently studying international law of armed conflict with the Executive LL.M. Program of the Geneva Academy. Earlier this year he completed an Executive Master in International Negotiation from the Graduate Institute of Geneva. Mr. Moran also has an MBA from Emory University’s Goizueta Business School and a BSFS from Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.
 The First Committee “deals with disarmament, global challenges and threats to peace that affect the international community and seeks out solutions to the challenges in the international security regime.” It meets in October each year. See http://www.un.org/en/ga/first/ for more information about this. Opening day official statements can be found at http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2012/gadis3453.doc.htm. Oxfam International has a blog associated with this series of meetings at http://blogs.oxfam.org/en/blogs/12-10-12-fighting-arms-trade-treaty-un-general-assembly. All links last accessed 15 October 2012.
 The key deliverable from the UN ATT Conference was an unsigned final draft treaty dated 26 July 2012. This draft is available at http://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament-fora/att/negotiating-conference/documents/consolidated-text-26July.pdf. Last accessed 14 October 2012.
 The Control Arms Campaign is the flagship civil society campaign advocating for an ATT. It started-up in 2003 as a powerful collaboration among the UK offices of Amnesty International, the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), and Oxfam International. In addition to having been funded by a few governments, Control Arms has support from under a 100 mostly Western advocacy groups yet views itself as a “global civil society alliance.” There are many different humanitarian groups and campaigns, but Control Arms is the biggest. Another campaign, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, is loud and vocal, but is not taken seriously by governments because it advocates for a total ban on the Arms Trade.
 Armstreaty.org is the leading ATT negotiations tracking website created by the Control Arms campaign and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. http://armstreaty.org/mapsstates.php. Last accessed 15 October 2012.
 Such views underpin many official views found the May 2012 official UN document “Compilation of Views on the Elements of an Arms Trade Treaty (A/CONF.217/2.” http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/CONF.217/2. Last accessed 15 October 2012.
 Here are links to press releases from Reuters, Oxfam, Amnesty International, and Control Arms. Sources last accessed 14 October 2012.
 Author conducted interviews with numerous diplomats and country delegates in and around the Geneva-based UN disarmament community in 2012. A consistent portrait painted by them was that Control Arms campaigners exhibited a profound lack of collective unity and focus, and that messaging was redundant, superficial, grossly insufficient to help in a technical or practical sense, and largely amounted to a waste of time even for diplomats and delegates who were sympathetic to their cause. Additionally, Control Arms Campaigners undermined their own efforts by insisting on adding controversial provisions to the treaty, such as Victim Assistance, which made consensus all the more unattainable.
 Control Arms is described as “unraveling” because, by 2012, Control Arms had essentially disintegrated as a cohesive coalition. This appears to be a key reason for a lack of focus in campaign execution. The proximate cause for this appears to be a case of disintegration due to interpersonal problems and hubris among its leaders, and organizational self-interest. Amnesty International essentially left Control Arms to pursue its own agenda in 2011. This information was corroborated by interviews with several diplomats and an interview with a professional arms trade researcher with direct knowledge of the situation and people concerned, May 2012.
 TSM Worldwide LLC conducted a comparative analysis of the website using snapshots taken 29 August and 14 October 2012.
 The only Scope issue area the US objected to was the inclusion of ammunition in the treaty. The implementation issue areas the US objects to are Final Provisions and Victim Assistance. Source: armstreaty.org. Last accessed 14 October 2012.
 The graphic represents outright country opposition to given issue areas as gauged by Control Arms only. The totals at the bottom of the table are counts of distinct instances of country / issue-area opposition and do not reflect the count of countries opposed to the ATT as a whole.
 These views were presented at a Geneva news discussion on 30 October 2012. The discussion amounted to an explanation as to why the draft ATT is completely unacceptable from a humanitarian law and human rights point of view. They also disseminated a document called “Academy Briefing No. 2: The Draft Arms Trade Treaty.” Last accessed 31 October 2012.
 One group is Handicap International, sponsors of the Campaign to Ban Landmines and co-winner of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. http://en.handicap-international.ca/Ottawa-treaty-good-news-and-bad-news_a186.html Last accessed 1 October 2012.
 There are confirmed reports from sources close to the process indicating there is a resolution before the First Committee that will allow for the UN ATT Conference to be extended for two weeks in March 2013. Consensus rules would remain in effect.
First Published: 17 October 2012
Last Updated: 31 October 2012
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