The Annual Arms Trade Treaty Conference Sputters to a Close

COMMENTARY Global Politics

The Annual Arms Trade Treaty Conference Sputters to a Close

Sep 4th, 2018 16 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Theodore R. Bromund, Ph.D.

Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations

Ted Bromund studies Anglo-American relations, U.S. relations with Europe and the EU, and the U.S.’s leadership role in the world.
The Conference of States Parties (CSP) to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) closed on Friday in Tokyo. yongyuan/Getty Images

The Conference of States Parties (CSP) to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) closed on Friday in Tokyo. This circus will come to town in Geneva again next August, but I can’t believe anyone is eager for the big top to re-open. Of all the ATT meetings I have attended since 2012, this was by far the least consequential.

It tells you about all you need to know that the conference room was half empty at the supposedly climactic moment on Friday, and that the only applause I heard all week came late on Friday morning, when the head of the ATT’s Secretariat proposed the conference get to work on the final report so that everyone could leave early and see Tokyo.

As Sheldon Clare, the dapper and effective head of Canada’s National Firearms Association, observed: “There are four types of participants in these conferences. Professional diplomats, here to do a job. National delegations, here to get the money. Naïve idealists, trying to change the world. And lastly, delegations that mostly want to go shopping.”

I’ve summarized the outcome of the CSP for The Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal. But a summary can’t do the event justice, because many of my more vivid impressions came from moments that don’t relate — at least not directly — to the meeting’s outcome. They do, though, say a lot about why the ATT is settling, in only its fourth year, into senescence.

The moment that will stick with me the longest came during the middle of the conference, when Sarah Parker, a fervent advocate of the ATT and now the second-in-command in its Secretariat, was reviewing the new website on which the Secretariat is working. Part of the site has a nifty presentation of which nations have filed the reports required by the ATT, and which have not.

As Parker scrolled through the site — which shows a lot of missing reports — she looked for a place where she could stop that wouldn’t be too embarrassing, and said “I don’t want to pick on anyone, especially someone who’s in the room.” And that sums it up. The ATT’s supporters delight in blaming U.S., Britain, Israel, and a few European nations, but they almost never call out anyone else by name for violating the treaty, or for not living up to their obligations under it. Their advocacy is reliably one-sided.

Occasionally, a bit of balance leaks through — belatedly. In 2015, for example, the umbrella non-governmental organization (NGO) behind the ATT, Control Arms, published a study of arms transfers to South Sudan. The story is complicated, but the gist of it is that Kenya transferred large quantities of arms — including T-72 tanks from Ukraine — to South Sudan from 2006 onwards. These transfers became public when Somalian pirates hijacked a ship carrying some of the tanks in 2008. In 2013, the South Sudanese government used the tanks to stop protests — by driving over people’s houses.

I’ve written about this affair. So have many journalists. It is no secret. But perhaps because Kenya was the leading African sponsor of the ATT, the pro-ATT NGOs didn’t want to embarrass the East African nation. So the ATT’s supporters have ignored Kenya’s role in trafficking battle tanks. Even the 2015 Control Arms paper sticks to the passive voice: the weapons “were offloaded in Mombasa and were subsequently transported through Kenya and Uganda to South Sudan.” I wouldn’t let an undergraduate get away with writing like that. Offloaded and transported by whom? T-72 tanks, which weigh over 40 tons, do not simply move across a country. Obviously, the government of Kenya was involved.

But by all means, let us not pick on them!

Still, at least Control Arms alluded to Kenya. Most of the time, the bias of the ATT’s backers is almost comical. Back in June, the UN held a biannual meeting of its Programme of Action on Small Arms (PoA), which many of the ATT’s best friends would dearly like to merge with the ATT in some way or another. The meeting ended with a confusing mishmash of procedural issues, which centered on the desire of most of the attending nations to add ammunition to the PoA and the U.S.’s efforts to resist this. Here’s how the Small Arms Monitor of Reaching Critical Will (RCW), another far-left ATT-supporting NGO, puts it:

“For too long, a unanimity interpretation of consensus has propped up a tyranny of the minority that perpetuates inequality in the UN system. The states wanting to see an ammunition reference in the document, because it is an extension of their own practice and reflects the real challenges of small arms violence, would not be refused this year.”

Got that? Lots of nations wanted ammunition in the PoA because they already control ammunition and because this is supposedly really important. What does this prove?

It proves that you do not need UN approval to control ammunition. It proves that the problems about which the majority complained supposedly exist even though that majority claims to control ammunition already. Evidently, therefore, the controls do not work, which is precisely why the U.S. opposed them. And then there is the rhetoric about “tyranny” and “inequality,” which implies that what really gets the blood flowing at RCW is sticking it to the U.S.

There is nothing new about the progressive dislike of consensus, the left’s emphasis on the wrong-doings of the U.S., or its love of the grand gesture. As Stephanie Carvin writes in the January 2017 number of the Journal of Cold War Studies, humanitarian NGOs like the International Committee for the Red Cross and the Third World (with half-hearted support from the USSR and, inevitably, backing from Scandinavia, in the person of Hans Blix) initially loved the process that led to the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). Resenting the Vietnam War, they saw the pact as a way to humiliate the West in general and the U.S. in particular.

But negotiations under the CCW ended up proceeding by consensus. The CCW did nothing to restrain the USSR’s massive violations of the laws of war in Afghanistan. The Third World nations had no intention of agreeing to anything that would restrict their own arms sales or purchases, and the nations that ratified the CCW did so mostly — shades of the ATT — because they thought it made them look good. Moreover, because of the consensus system, the CCW’s achievements came slowly, and they were small and moderately helpful rather than big and world-changing.

So the NGOs and the masochistic nations like Norway gave up on the CCW, and started their own campaign to ban land mines altogether. That campaign did not require consensus, could focus on blaming the U.S. and Israel, and was a lovely piece of symbolism which paid no attention to the refusal of most of the world’s land mine users to sign on. The progressive NGOs have never been comfortable in the real world of power and national interests, preferring to live in a fantasy world where powerful democracies like the U.S. are the problem and big symbolic victories that can be leveraged to raise funds are more valuable than small steps that have widespread buy-in from the players that matter.

Fortunately, the rest of the world — i.e., the Third World — has started to realized that, as with the CCW, they have nothing much to gain from the ATT, and that, if anyone takes it seriously, it is likely to make life harder for them by reducing their ability to defend themselves. After all, the ATT is dominated by Europe and the developed world, ie the arms-selling nations. In Tokyo, 36 of the 79 States Parties came from Europe alone, and if you add in Australia, Japan, and the like, the deck is stacked, numerically and especially financially, against the Third World. In June, at the second preparatory meeting for the Tokyo conference, the disparity was even greater: there, 34 of the 71 attendees were Europeans. The Third World will gain more votes over time, but it will always face a cohesive and financially superior European bloc.

The consequences of this fact were obvious at Tokyo. As I pointed out in the Daily Signal, the biggest squabble of the week was over the sponsorship program that pays for a few Third World delegates to attend the annual conference. The European wanted it to be run by the ATT Secretariat, to centralize control in Geneva; the non-Europeans, led by Mexico, wanted it to stay with the UN Development Programme, where they have more influence. The Europeans won, of course.

It just goes to show that, inside the ATT, most of the developing world are rule takers, not rule makers, in an institution that is essentially intended to reduce their ability to import arms. And apart from rules, the ATT has nothing to offer the developing world. It has no great store of foreign aid to parcel out, so it has little with which to buy friends. It imposes a lot of tedious reporting requirements, and it promises to do nothing but make life harder for the majority of governments that import most of their arms. In the circumstances, it is no surprise that, now that the flush of its novelty has worn off, governments are willing to do no more than pay lip service to it.

The ATT is thus another symbolic progressive victory that is failing in practice. Even its advocates now admit it. The Red Cross is “concerned by the growing gap between States' absolute commitments to human rights and international humanitarian law – in the Treaty and elsewhere – and how arms are transferred in practice.” Amnesty International — which long since decided that the democracies are at least as bad as the dictatorships — refers to the “brazen . . . violations” of the ATT, inevitably headlining its complaint by pointing a finger at Israel, the UK, France, and the U.S. The Economist moansthat the ATT is “honoured in the breach,” or — in other versions of its plaint — that the ATT “has little impact.”

I have no doubt that many of these complaints about violations of the ATT are plausible — or, indeed, accurate. In late 2014, I myself commented that the U.S. was breaking the Treaty it had just signed:

“The [Obama] Administration has argued that U.S. standards exceed those in the ATT, but treaty advocates correctly argue that the U.S. decision to arm rebel forces in Syria is a violation of the ATT. This demonstrates that the advocates do seek to constrain U.S. policy and that the ATT, if the Senate ratified it, would impinge on U.S. sovereignty. Congress should congratulate the Administration for violating the ATT and call on it to recognize the implications of this violation by unsigning the ATT.”

And that is the rub. If the ATT does not make a difference to the way states behave, then it is pointless and the U.S. should not give it the credibility implied by our signature. If the ATT does make a difference to the way states behave, then it is likely to constrain U.S. options in ways we should not accept, and we should get out of it. In practice, it will be — and already has been — the worst of both worlds: ignored by most, constraining on the places that are most easily swayed by public opinion and lawyers. In other words, on the U.S. and its closest allies.

In fact, in the UK, the ATT’s friends have resorted to suing the British government to enforce the treaty. So far, the British government has won the day in court, though the judicial reasoning behind this victory is far from sure and its implications are far from comforting. The British are so tired of this that in Tokyo, they took to making speeches urging that the ATT not become a “court of inquiry” to be used against its signatories, a phrase that left knowledgeable observers chuckling with glee and contempt.

I don’t have much sympathy with the British government, which was the prime mover behind the ATT as a way to make nice with the progressive left and in the foolish belief that the ATT would make life easier for its own defense exporters. But I do wonder how many diplomats in the State Department, which still purports to believe that the ATT will never actually affect the U.S., would like to find themselves forced to testify in court on the charge that they too have violated the ATT. They say it can’t happen here. I bet British diplomats said exactly the same thing.

More broadly, allowing institutions like the ATT to proceed in the belief that they will never affect the U.S. is a serious error. When the International Criminal Court (ICC) was in prospect, the U.S. worked hard to keep the Court from becoming, in effect, a supranational entity that could take investigations out of the hands of national governments and reject decisions made by national courts. At the time, the Court’s advocates argued that the U.S. concern was ridiculous, foolish, and wrong-headed, as the Court would surely never be turned against the U.S.

But with the ICC now investigating alleged U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan, the concerns the U.S. expressed back in the day look foresightful, not wrong-headed. The ATT, like the ICC, offers no security that it will not be used against the U.S. We must therefore proceed on the assumption that the treaty will be used against us, especially because its advocates state their intention is to do exactly that.

Of course, the actual logic of the ATT still eludes a lot of those advocates. Some observers still believe that the ATT is a disarmament treaty, even though it is palpably no such thing. The ICRC, for example, refers to rising arms shipments in Asia as a sign that the ATT is failing. But one purpose of the ATT — purportedly — is to clamp down on the illegal arms trade. If you take that seriously, it might well be the case that rising reported (in other words, legal) arms shipments mean that the ATT is working as demand shifts from the illegal to the legal side. Remarkably, the ATT’s advocates don’t seem to grasp that their favorite treaty might cause a boom in reported arms sales. Of course, in actuality, rising arms shipments don’t mean the ATT is working. They mean the ATT is simply irrelevant.

The Economist, for its part, argues that, in the ATT, the “means exist to regulate the global arms trade.” Poppycock. If the world’s governments want to control the arms they buy and sell, they can do so right now — without the aid of a treaty. They have all the legal power they need to do the job. The reality is that most of them don’t want to do so or aren’t competent enough to do so. If a treaty could solve those problems, we might just as well negotiate a treaty ending war, or pass a law banning crime. A lot of nations want the applause of signing the ATT, but when it comes to national interests, the only nations likely to be moved by it are the ones where public opinion matters—in other words, the democracies. The Economist refers to unnamed conservative critics in Washington, D.C. who deride the ATT as liberal utopianism. Thanks guys — couldn’t have said it better myself.

The trade in conventional arms is one of those problems that cannot be tackled effectively precisely because of the obsessions of those who feel it most acutely. The ATT, the manifestation of those obsessions, is not an answer to the problem: it is a distraction from the problem. Its proponents want a top-down solution to what is fundamentally a bottom-up dilemma, they hate the idea that civilians have any right to defend themselves instead of relying on the state, and they want to rouse public opinion against both arms and the arms trade in precisely those parts of the world — the democracies — where public opinion is already the most empowered, regardless of the fact that the last place in the world that needs its consciousness raised is the West. They are uninterested in — even hostile to — the fact that, in international affairs, there is rarely a good and a bad. There is usually just a bad and a very bad.

There is often merit in helping the bad (the South Korean military regime in 1950, for example) against the very bad (North Korea and the USSR). On the other hand, sometimes there is not. There is no pat formula for making this choice — but you do have to choose. Standing aside is just as much a choice as getting involved: Not helping South Korea is a help to North Korea. The ATT, with its provision that states can assess whether an export of arms “would contribute to or undermine peace and security” just barely acknowledges this — but its advocates never do. For them, arms exports are either unproblematic (rarely) or bad (usually). They show no awareness that helping South Korea survive the North Korean onslaught in 1950 — even if South Korea was no democracy — was actually a good thing.

There is no one easy step forward that we can make to address the problems of the conventional arms trade — though there are lots of little steps. It is not simply a matter of building up competent governments, because in practice, the only places that can be both competent and responsible are democracies, and that is a big ask — it is a matter of generations. Slapping a treaty like the ATT down on top of the world as it is evades the central question in international affairs, which is what compromises between the bad and the worse will help you move a little further down that long road. Refusing to make any compromises at all is an abdication, not a triumph of moral clarity, and people who believe foreign policy can be made by applying the criteria that the most important thing we can do in the world is keep our hands clean should get out of the business of making treaties and into a nunnery.

The last word goes to one of the speakers in Tokyo, Shobha Shrestha, of Women for Peace and Democracy – Nepal. She told a story about a woman who was lured into a Maoist rebel group and then grossly abused. Obscurely, Shrestha took this as proof of the ATT’s merits. But in Nepal, either the Maoists win or the government does. In Afghanistan, the choice is between the government or the Taliban. In Yemen, today’s ATT cause celebre, it is between a rotten regime recognized by the UN and a rebel movement backed by Iran. In Iraq, it was between a bad Iraqi government and ISIS.

There are all sorts of plausible things to be said about how wretched these governments are, but in every case, they are the recognized government, and they are better than the alternative that is trying to get rid of them. By making the case that arming these governments is bad, the treaty advocates are not advancing a humanitarian argument. They are taking the side of the very bad against the bad. In other words, they are using a UN treaty to justify siding against UN member states and with the terrorists who are trying to overthrow them. Of all the ATT’s failures, that is the worst.

The ATT is made for a world without security concerns. In the real world, if the ATT had existed from time immemorial, there is not a government that is or ever was, in or out of Europe, that could justify all the things it did to establish and keep itself in power. And yet today’s activists — in Europe, pre-eminently — now sit in their nice, peaceful societies of today, protected by American arms, and worry about getting their hands dirty.

Not surprisingly, most governments, even in Europe, see it differently. They think their job is to help their industry, to help their allies and oppose their enemies, and, ultimately, to stay in power. And they are right. As long as they see it that way, the ATT is going to continue to go nowhere, finding its only successes in the West when the lawyers take charge or the activists have a good day. Fortunately, on the evidence of Tokyo and the ATT’s track record to date, they are unlikely to have too many.

This piece originally appeared in Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/tedbromund/2018/08/31/the-annual-arms-trade-treaty-conference-sputters-to-a-close/#71eaf066eeff