UN Arms Trade Treaty Could be Amended in Future Over US Objections

July 25, 2012 - 12:13 AM

UN arms trade treaty conference

The U.N. Conference on an Arms Trade Treaty gets underway at U.N. headquarters in New York on July 3, 2012. The conference ends on Friday, July 27. (UN Photo by Eskinder Debebe)

(CNSNews.com) – With a Friday deadline looming, negotiators at the United Nations are circulating a draft of a global conventional arms trade treaty that critics worry will do little to constrain “bad actors,” while countries like the United States duly comply.

A glaring provision in the draft states that any country that is party to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) can propose amendments to it at any time after it enters into force. Such amendments will be taken up at a conference of signatory states, where – according to article 20/3 of the text – it “shall be adopted by consensus, or if consensus is not achieved, by two-thirds of the States Parties present and voting.”

The two-thirds requirement may appear to be a safeguard but, assuming all 193 U.N. member-states sign up to the treaty, the 132-member developing nation bloc known as “G77 plus China” accounts for more than two-thirds of the whole.

It would therefore be conceivable that the ATT could be amended in the future by the required two-thirds majority vote, even if Western-led democracies object.

When the Obama administration in Oct. 2009 reversed its predecessor’s opposition and agreed to participate in the month-long ATT conference that ends on Friday, it made its support conditional on consensus decision-making.

“As long as that Conference operates under the rule of consensus decision-making needed to ensure that all countries can be held to standards that will actually improve the global situation by denying arms to those who would abuse them, the United States will actively support the negotiations,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the time.

“Consensus is needed to ensure the widest possible support for the Treaty and to avoid loopholes in the Treaty that can be exploited by those wishing to export arms irresponsibly,” she added.

While the negotiations in New York are being held on that basis, the inclusion in the draft text of article 20/3 means that any future changes to the treaty may be out of Washington’s hands.

In a reaction Tuesday to the draft Heritage Foundation senior research fellow Ted Bromund, who is monitoring the ATT conference, called article 20/3 the “first and overriding problem.”

“This would make the U.S., if it were to sign, subject to a two-thirds majority rule on matters of fundamental national security and constitutional liberties,” he said. “It is completely unacceptable.”

The treaty as currently drafted applies to international transfers of tanks and armored combat vehicles, artillery and missile systems, warplanes and attack helicopters, warships, and small arms and light weapons, but not – at Washington’s insistence – ammunition.

The U.S. produces more than seven billion rounds of ammunition a year, and the U.S. representative, Assistant Secretary Thomas Countryman, says including ammunition would be “hugely impractical.”

Excluding ammunition from the list of items specifically covered by the treaty was one of the red lines laid down by the administration earlier. Other declared red lines included any impact on Second Amendment rights (“private acquisition, ownership, or possession of firearms … must remain matters of domestic law”) as well as any attempt to establish an international enforcement body.

The draft text does not provide for an enforcement body, although there will be an “implementation support unit,” funded by the signatories. Countries will have to provide the unit with annual reports on the authorization and transfers of arms covered by the treaty.

un gun sculpture

The “Knotted Gun” sculpture, by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reutersward, on display at the Visitors’ Plaza at U.N. headquarters in New York. (UN Photo by Rick Bajornas)

‘Contribute to peace and security’

The main operative part of the text prohibits the transfer of those categories of arms if doing so would violate U.N. Security Council embargoes or other international obligations relating to illicit arms transfers; or facilitate crimes against humanity, war crimes or genocide.

Before transferring arms, signatory countries must assess whether they “contribute to peace and security,” or if they could be used to commit or facilitate serious violations, or be used by terrorists or organized crime gangs.

Signatories would additionally be expected to take steps to avoid the arms being diverted to the illicit market; being used to commit or facilitate gender-based violence or violence against children; stoking corruption; or “adversely impact[ing] the development of the recipient State.”

The vagueness of some of these provisions worry critics. For instance, advocacy groups could under almost any circumstance argue that a particular arms sale “adversely impacts” the development of the purchasing country, if that country’s economy is not particularly robust – despite the fact it may have hostile neighbors and legitimate defense needs.

The requirement that arms transfers “contribute to peace and security” is similarly subjective.

“Russia can say that providing arms to Syria will contribute to peace and security by helping the Assad regime to win,” Bromund argued. “The problem with this is the same one that inherently dogs any treaty on the arms trade:  It will do nothing to stop the bad guys while constraining the good ones.”

The text states that the treaty must be implemented “in a universal, objective and non-discriminatory manner.”

“That is code language for not discriminating against Iran or any other abuser,” commented Bromund.

As with most U.N. treaties, the ATT treats all signatory countries alike (exceptions would include those like the Kyoto Protocol or Non-Proliferation Treaty, which provide for different categories of states.) The appointment of Iran as a vice-president of the ATT conference despite arms proliferation violations underlined the problems inherent in the “sovereign and equal” approach.

“The inevitable result of this, in the context of the ATT, will be a treaty stating that Iran and Venezuela have the same rights to buy, sell, and transfer weapons as do the U.S. and Japan,” Bromund said earlier.

“The U.N. already contains far too many dictatorships; negotiating a treaty that enshrines their equality of status in the realm of arms transfers is inherently a bad and dangerous idea.”

Meanwhile arms control advocates are also concerned about the way negotiations are going, accusing the U.S. of weakening the ATT by excluding ammunition and countries like China and Russia of wanting to omit the human rights (crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide) provisions.

“This treaty offers the best opportunity in a generation to end the human cost of the irresponsible arms trade,” said World Evangelical Alliance secretary-general Geoff Tunnicliffe, a member of the Control Arms campaign. “For this to be true, ammunition must be included in any agreement. Guns without bullets are useless.”

“A strong treaty is still within our grasp but there is a real risk it could slip through our fingers at the last minute,” said Jeff Abramson, director of the Control Arms secretariat. “Now is the time for action. All states that have called for a strong Arms Trade Treaty for years in the past, must now deliver on their promises.”