The Arms Trade Treaty: Where We Are at In Negotiations So far

One week into the much anticipated Arms Trade Treaty talks and no side is particularly pleased with how things are going thus far. While that’s to be expected in a set of negotiations as contentious as these, the breadth of upset parties is rather impressive. Putting aside the gripes of the Vatican and Palestine from early last week, the discontent seems to be spreading among various groups both inside and outside of the walls of the UN.


Representatives of non-governmental organizations such as Oxfam, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and others dedicated to reducing the arms trade descended upon New York last week, having been promised a transparent treaty process. Advocates and experts were excited for the potential of being on the floor with delegates during their sessions, to provide insight on how they deliberations would affect the flow of weapons. They were sorely disappointed to learn that, in a reworking of the Programme of Work, half of the sessions moving forward would be closed, allowing only representatives of states and observers take part.

Anna MacDonald of Oxfam in a press statement said “The arms trade is often a shadowy business with arms deals being conducted in isolation, behind closed doors…Thanks to a tiny minority of countries it now seems like negotiations on the Arms Trade treaty will also become secretive.”

The Right Wing

Right-wing commentators in the United States have been going crazy at the mere thought of these talks ever since they were first announced in 2009. Conspiracies have run amok, along with concerns among legislators and pundits alike that the treaty would override Second Amendment rights possessed by US citizens. While there is a great deal of evidence showing that the Arms Trade Treaty will not affect the ownership of firearms by private civilians, particularly not in the United States, there is still pressure within the US for any treaty to be struck down rather than ratified.

Also getting the right in a furor is the election of Iran to a “top post” at the conference, according to the highly critical UN Watch blog. One of three members chosen to represent the Asian Group, Iran will sit on the conference’s Bureau, which according the conference website “assists the President in the general conduct of the business of the Conference.” In the minds of detractors, this is an opportunity for Iran to undermine the credibility of the process which it disagrees with in the first place. In reality, it means that Iran will likely serve as a deputy or rapporteur during several sessions of the conference.

Arms Treaty Proponents 

In a disappointment to those who were hoping for strong US leadership towards a tough treaty that covers all facets of the legal arms trade, the Obama Administration has indicated it won’t be going quite as far as those advocates would like. US Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman yesterday announced that the US would not be seeking coverage of ammunition in the ATT, a key goal of advocacy groups:

“[Ammunition] is fungible, consumable, reloadable, and cannot be marked in any practical way that would permit it to be tracked or traced. Any practical proposal for ammunition would need to consider the significant burdens associated with licensing, authorizations, and recordkeeping for ammunition that is produced and transferred in the billions of rounds per year,” [A/S Countryman] added. “Because each State imports small arms and light weapons ammunition, these burdens would need to be assumed by each State at significant administrative and financial costs.”

Despite all this, the talks march forward, with their eyes on the end date of the conference, now only three weeks out. Impassioned pleas on the need for a treaty continue to be rolled out, including a strong endorsement by the New York Times’ Editorial Board. Even with NGO participation diluted, their presence in helping shape the discourse is definitely still being noticed.

It’s too early at this juncture to tell precisely what the completed text will look like. However, as the approval process is consensus-based, you can be sure that there will be several participants less than pleased with the outcome.