Lost in the hoopla of the opening ceremony of the Olympics, a vital international marathon of another kind ended Friday with a race suspension just before the finish line. At the United Nations in New York, a month of intensive multilateral negotiations on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) to regulate international transfers of conventional weapons concluded without agreement, largely because the United States called for more time on the final day.
The U.S. announcement was a surprise. Just a few hours earlier, many participants were anticipating a positive outcome after Ambassador Roberto Garcia Moritan of Argentina, who presided over the conference, introduced a revised text that gained widespread support.
For Control Arms, the international coalition of NGOs that has campaigned for a treaty for more than a decade, Mr. Moritan’s text was not perfect. But it contained two core elements of the coalition’s humanitarian objectives. First, small arms and light weapons – the weapons of death and mass destruction in many countries in the global South – were included in the arms categories subject to the treaty. Second, the draft called for tough national export standards based on international human rights and humanitarian law, standards that will require improvements even to Canada’s comparatively strong military export regulations.
The real reasons the United States pulled the plug are known only within the Obama administration, but many conference delegates suggested the impending U.S. presidential election was a factor.
The ATT has been cynically portrayed by the National Rifle Association as a UN instrument to attack U.S. Second Amendment rights. That the U.S. gun lobby has deliberately misrepresented the treaty for its own ends is not in question. The question is whether the NRA message is believed by U.S. voters, and the assessment of the administration appears to be yes.
The parallels in Canada are too close for comfort. Like its U.S. counterpart, the Harper government has shown a decided lack of leadership on the ATT, although both countries do have meaningful military export controls in place.
Canada was an observer at the negotiations, with its few interventions focused on complaints about technical details. Unlike Australia, Mexico and the United Kingdom, Canada made no effort to bring states closer to the consensus agreement required in this UN process.
And its primary interest during negotiations was protecting the rights of Canadian firearm owners. It is no secret that this focus stems from the influence of the gun lobby, which had a representative among the Canadian delegation. All this despite the fact that the ATT has never been a threat to domestic gun ownership. Like the 2006 UN resolution establishing the ATT process, Mr. Moritan’s final text reaffirms the rights of states to regulate transfers within their territories.
Fortunately, the ATT process did not end on Friday. The United States has called for the negotiating conference to reconvene in 2013, again operating on a consensus basis. Other countries may not wait that long nor be willing to negotiate under a consensus constraint.
After the conference concluded, Mexico, speaking on behalf of 90 countries – including Canada – stated that together they “are determined to secure an Arms Trade Treaty as soon as possible.”
Discussion has turned to bringing the tabled text from the conference – with a few widely supported improvements – to the UN General Assembly later this year, where it can pass with a majority vote of member states. In that scenario, Canada still has an opportunity to move up to lead at the conclusion of this essential disarmament marathon.
Kenneth Epps is senior program officer at Project Ploughshares in Waterloo, Ont., and co-chair of the steering board of the international Control Arms coalition.