The US at Treaty Negotiations: The Drunk Uncle Who Ruins the Party for Everyone Else

Many families have a “drunk uncle” who comes round at Thanksgiving or some other family function and proceeds to belligerently spoil the evening for everyone else.  And since the uncle is “family,” no one wants to stage the intervention or disinvite him from the next gathering for fear of alienating him.  Well, as far as the multilateral disarmament community is concerned, the United States is our drunk Uncle Sam and we need to have an urgent talk about him.

The Arms Trade Treaty, Latest in a Long Line of Failures

Last week, the United States just about single-handedly prevented the adoption of the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), a treaty that would have regulated the $60 billion a year arms export trade.  To be clear, the United States was not the only country to object to the ATT text that was proposed for adoption, but the other objectors (Russia, China, India and Indonesia have all been mentioned) were only too happy to let the US be the country to halt the negotiations.  The US’s objections are based upon domestic politics and fear of antagonizes the very powerful gun lobby in the United States in a presidential election year.  But do not assume that had the Treaty negotiations taken place in a non-election year or if the president were a Republican in good standing with the National Rifle Association would the Treaty have been adopted by the United States.  These were just the convenient excuses for the US’s non-acceptance.

The United States’s participation in multi-lateral disarmament treaties is framed within the very narrow constructs of “National Interest” which the Obama Administration further defines as national security.  Historically the United States has demonstrated a willingness to support brutal dictatorships whose flagrant violations of fundamental human rights are legion (please see Zaire and Mobutu Sese Seko).  Despite the total lack of democracy and a decades-long declaration of martial law, the United States supported the regime of Hosni Mubarak with billions in annual military aid until it became clear that Mubarak’s hold over the country was lost.  Remember the tear gas canisters used against protesters in Tahrir Square that were proudly stamped, “Made in the USA”?  The United States continues to provide significant military assistance to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain despite evidence that both countries used the arms provided by the US to crackdown against their own people during the Arab Spring.  That is the standard which we should be measuring the Arms Trade Treaty against, not the question of adherence to the Second Amendment (which is a red herring).  Would the Arms Trade Treaty’s language about human rights and the responsibility of the exporting arms to countries where there is a significant chance the arms will be used to violate human rights prevent the US from supplying weapons to allies like Bahrain or Saudi Arabia?  Unfortunately, within the frame of National Interest, US foreign policy implementers can easily foresee potential circumstances where the US would ally with a known human rights abuser for the sake of national security.

However, more importantly than why the US refused to agree to the Treaty text is the question of why anyone thought they would in the first place?  Activists believed that a draft of the Treaty circulated last week would appease the US delegation (New York Times) and certainly based upon the information published by the United States through the States Department (State Department), the draft Treaty appeared to be acceptable to the United States.  But in the end, the United States was content to let the negotiations end, saying only that the text needed “further review and refinement” and that a vote on the current treaty by the United Nations General Assembly would not be supported (State Department).

Pattern of Behavior

The US has blocked or tried to block several multilateral treaties on conventional arms disarmament in recent years.   The US’s actions during the Arms Trade Treaty are completely consistent with past behavior.

In the 1990s, the United States, under the leadership of President Bill Clinton and Senator Patrick Leahy, banned the export of anti-personnel landmines and called for the multilateral negotiation process to ban anti-personnel landmines.  In fact, the US led the drafting of the Amended Protocol II to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) which was intended to ban landmines but was generally seen as inadequate.  In response, Canada led the Ottawa Process and called for states who were supportive of a total ban on landmines to sign a pledge to that effect.  The US signed the pledge but refused to participate in any of the preparatory meetings to draft the Mine Ban Treaty.  Only towards the end of the Ottawa Process, at the Olso Conference whose purpose was to negotiate a comprehensive ban on anti-personnel landmines, did the US engage in the drafting meetings.  When it did engage, the US sought an exception for the Korean Peninsula and a provision allowing countries to withdraw from the proposed treaty when it was in the “supreme national interest.”  When its demands were not met, the US took its ball and went home – I mean, withdrew from the negotiations – and the Mine Ban Treaty proceeded without the United States’s participation (Northwestern University Journal of International Human Rights).

In 2006, despite the widespread use by Israel of cluster munitions against populated areas in Lebanon, the parties to the CCW again failed to pass a protocol that was seen as strong enough to protect humanitarian interests.  In response, Norway called for an Ottawa-type negotiation to ban all cluster munitions and invited interested countries to participate.  Unlike the 1990s, the US made its opposition to the “Olso Process” clear and in response, Norway decided to not even invite the US to participate (Norwegian Mission to the United Nations).  The US’s opposition was confirmed by “a telling vote in September 2006 on legislation that would have banned the use of cluster bombs in civilian areas. Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain voted against the ban which failed 70-30.”  Despite the US opposition to what has become the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), the US wanted “to maintain the military option of using them as a defensive weapon,” more than 100 countries have agreed to the ban on cluster munitions (Swamp Politics blog) and 75 states have ratified the treaty (Convention on Cluster Munitions).

In a non-disarmament case, the United States undermined the International Criminal Court (and remember that the US signed the Rome Statute creating the Court, but has refused to ratify or even consider the treaty in the Senate) in 2003 by suspending military aid to 35 allies because they did not sign immunity deals promising not to refer American soldiers and their commanders to the Court.  The timing of this is important because the immunity protections were sought just as the United States was about to invade Iraq and the US did not want to risk possible indictment by the ICC for what some countries viewed as an unlawful invasion (Taipei Times).

The most recent example of US meddling and opposition to multilateral disarmament negotiations (before the Arms Trade Treaty) was in 2011 at the Fourth Review Conference on the CCW.  The Conference was considering an Amended Protocol that would have banned cluster munitions, similar to the CCM.  The “United States actively pushed a draft CCW protocol that would have prohibited some cluster munitions but would have allowed the use of others” and despite last minute efforts by the United States to amend the protocol, more than 50 states – mostly signatories to the CCM – refused to sign the US-sponsored protocol because it “did not fully address their fundamental concerns, did not prohibit use of cluster munitions, and would not have provided sufficient humanitarian value, and does not command consensus” (Arms Control Now). In this negotiation, the United States tried to position itself as a leader on disarmament, but because it wanted to retain some usage rights, other states refused to agree with the US and the measure failed.

What Will Happen to the Arms Trade Treaty Now?

The United States has, in the process of ATT negotiations actually changed its position.  In the run up to the negotiations, the US declared its support of the ATT because the Treaty “intended to establish common international standards for the import, export, and transfer of conventional arms to help prevent the acquisition of arms by terrorists, criminals, and those who violate human rights or are subject to UN arms embargoes” (State Department, emphasis mine).  After the collapse of the negotiations on Friday, July 27th, the State Department issued a statement saying the US still supported the Arms Trade Treaty negotiations because such a Treaty “will make a valuable contribution to global security by helping to stem illicit arms transfers, and we will continue to look for ways for the international community to work together to improve the international arms transfer regime so that weapons aren’t transferred to people who would abuse them (State Department, emphasis mine).  Do you see the watering down of the language?  The US still wants to prevent illicit arms transfers, but the second part is weaker.  No more mention of human rights, just “people who would abuse” arms.  States that use arms in their own national interests, whatever those interests may be, would be protected under the US formulation.  The focus also shifts from states to people.  States don’t abuse guns, people do; or, there are no bad states, just bad people.

One possible avenue that activists are exploring is to bring the Arms Trade Treaty to the General Assembly.  The US has already stated that “a vote on the current treaty by the United Nations General Assembly would not be supported” (State Department).   The United States does not want to see a General Assembly vote because in the General Assembly, the Treaty would only need a two-thirds majority to be accepted and not the consensus demanded by the United States during the negotiation.  Under this less stringent requirement for passage, the possibility of a stronger treaty exists, with the recognition that the states that object to the current document would also object to a stronger one (GAPW Blog).

The US does a lot of good work on mine action through bilateral funding and training, but it’s terrible in the multilateral sphere.  It’s time to stop inviting the US to the table.  Norway refused to let the US participate in the negotiations that led to the Convention on Cluster Munitions and in doing so, prevented the US from forcing a weakened cluster munitions protocol on the parties to the CCW.  Uncle Sam may be part of the global family, but until he sobers up, he’s not invited.


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