July is Arms Trade Treaty Month
At one time in the mid-1990s, it seemed like a week couldn’t go by without some large gathering of States seeking to hammer out the terms of a new multilateral treaty with aspirations for universal membership. Such treaty negotiations have become a rarer phenomenon today with most meetings now emphasizing implementation of, and compliance with, existing treaties. And where new norms are called for, treaties are no longer the default vehicle — many States now favor using political commitments (e.g., the Copenhagen Accord) as an alternative to the more traditional treaty form.
Still, from time to time, treaty negotiations and all the diplomatic machinations accompanying them return to center stage. July appears to be one of those times. Starting today and running through July 27, the UN is launching a new treaty negotiation in New York for an Arms Trade Treaty. The UN General Assembly first proposed such a treaty in December 2006 in its Resolution 61/89. You can review a summary of the work of the preparatory committee since then here, including the Chair’s 2011 non-paper that outlines what an Arms Trade Treaty might look like. A compilation of State reactions to the Chair’s non-paper is also available.
The pitch for an arms trade treaty is a simple one — there are treaties regulating almost every other good as it is traded across borders; as one pro-treaty NGO representative put it, “It is an absurd and deadly reality that there are currently global rules governing the trade of fruit and dinosaur bones, but not ones for the trade of guns and tanks”. The argument goes on to suggest that this absence of regulations means that weapons can be traded to and misused by government forces or end up in the wrong hands of criminals, pirates, terrorists, etc., who then perpetuate death and destruction.
On the other hand, there are significant obstacles that may limit or obstruct any arms trade treaty. For starters, under the current rules of procedure, the treaty’s adoption will require consensus, meaning one State (think the US or Russia) could block it (it is possible though that a text supported by a sufficient number of States might be put before the UN General Assembly itself, which requires only a super-majority vote). Second, as the UN’s Register of Global Reported Arms Trade indicates, there’s a lot of arms traffic (and thus money) at stake. Thus, there is a wide array of stakeholders out there whose interests may not coincide with the sort of trade regulation that NGOs like Amnesty International envision. Third, there’s a looming fight over whether to include ammunition within the treaty, which will obviously have a fairly significant impact on the proposed treaty’s scope. And to the extent the treaty tries to regulate trade with specific actors (e.g., terrorists), there will undoubtedly be definitional and labeling issues that may make the treaty difficult to implement (for example, there is still no UN-accepted definition for terrorism).
As for the United States, the Obama Administration shifted course in 2009 and agreed not to oppose the current negotiations (which the Bush Administration had opposed in favor of better national controls). Still, the US faces a few daunting issues in any arms trade treaty, most obviously, that any focus on arms, even one limited to regulating trade in arms, engenders 2nd Amendment concerns and domestic opposition from those who resist federal laws or regulations relating to guns (and this will be true I suspect even if the Obama Administration negotiates a text that it believes steers clear of any U.S. Second Amendment jurisprudence). There’s also a question of continued US trade in arms to Taiwan and how the treaty would address whose law regulates the importation of weapons into Taiwan (with the possibility that the government of the People’s Republic of China might use any treaty to advance its position on Taiwan’s status).
In other words, there’s a lot on the table in New York this month. And I’m sure this post has only scratched the surface. So, I’d welcome reader input on other issues or views about the negotiations’ chances for success (or failure). I’d also welcome any pointers to a daily digest of the negotiation’s progress along the lines of the invaluable IISD reporting service that serves such a wonderful updating and reporting role in the international environmental context. I expect I’m not the only one interested in seeing how things progress.