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The U.N. Arms Trade Treaty Is Back (and Actually, It Never Left)

The U.N. Arms Trade Treaty Is Back (and Actually, It Never Left)

The First Committee of the U.N. General Assembly is considering a resolution to convene “the Final United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty” in New York next March.

In July, a U.N. conference to negotiate an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) collapsed when it became obvious that the draft treaty was not ready for prime time. But as I wrote at the time, the conference’s collapse was “not the end of the process. It is the end of a phase.” That next phase of the ATT is now well underway.

After the conference fell apart, 90 nations-led by Mexico-stated their desire to secure an ATT “as soon as possible.” For a while, it seemed possible that, egged on by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that blamed the July fiasco on the U.S., they might try to push a treaty through the U.N. General Assembly, an approach that would certainly have produced a treaty the U.S. could never ratify. But cooler heads, and the marginally saner option of the First Committee resolution, prevailed.

The U.S. has stated that it “strongly supports convening a short UN conference next spring” to negotiate “a workable and implementable ATT.” The EU has spoken to similar effect, as have many other nations. Thus, the resolution is almost certain to be adopted, both in the First Committee and the General Assembly.

Its terms are not surprising: The March conference will operate on the basis of consensus, meaning that the U.S. or any other participating nation can block the adoption of a final text. It will use the July text as “as the basis for future work.”

The most interesting aspects of the resolution are that the use of the July text is “without prejudice to the right of delegations to put forward additional proposals.” This is logical-if the July text had been acceptable to all, the ATT would exist today. But it reflects the fact that quite a few nations (and NGOs) strongly dislike the current text.

The Non-Aligned Movement wants the ATT to include civilian firearms, while one NGO refers to the current draft as “flawed enough to completely undermine the very reason for negotiating an ATT.” And that leads to another interesting aspect of the resolution: It refers to the March conference as “final.”

In other words, if the March conference cannot agree on a text they like, the treaty supporters will, as Ireland put it, “consider other options.”

This threat, which has always been inherent in the ATT negotiations at the U.N., is now coming into the open: If the negotiations don’t produce what the supporters view as the correct result, they will break out of the U.N. and negotiate a treaty on their own, as they did on land mines and cluster munitions. That process would be guaranteed to produce a bad treaty, and even if the U.S. decided not to participate in the negotiations, having another bad treaty in circulation could not be good for the U.S.

So the stakes at the U.N. now-and in New York in March-are high, and no likely outcome will be fully satisfactory from the U.S. point of view. All the more reason, therefore, for Congress to return to the issue and to set out again their concerns about the flaws in the current draft of the ATT and those inherent in any ATT. The worst course of action would be for the U.S. to drift into a position where it feels pressured to sign an ATT that is incompatible with U.S. policies and liberties.

Ted Bromund, Ph.D.
Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations
Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom