Being on the ground at a major international conference gives you a sense of the atmosphere that you just can’t get from reading the documents. The same goes for the first Conference of States Parties (CSP) to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which I’m currently attending in Cancun.
The nominal purpose of the treaty is to regulate the international arms trade. But as I pointed out Monday, it’s mostly a testimony to the way that a sensible idea can be perverted by cheerleading progressive NGOs and multilateral diplomacy into something not at all sensible.
It’s fascinating to watch those NGOs at work here: They create a lot of the atmosphere. In the conference hall, the pro-treaty NGOs get four massive televisions, which hang over our heads and show a rolling display of pro-treaty tweets. Skeptics like myself don’t get a television; we’re lucky to be here at all. There’s no doubt who the treaty process insiders are.
The big NGO here is the Control Arms Coalition (CAC). And when I say big, I mean it: They are rumored to have more than 100 delegates in the hall, almost one delegate for each of the 121 nations attending the CSP. Though they were bitterly opposed to the idea that NGOs should have to pay their way at the CSP, they have enough money to hire three guys to build a sandcastle tank on the beach in front of the resort.
CAC is brilliant at coming up with PR stunts like this; while they pose as a source of expertise, they’re really just an advocacy organization. They build sandcastle tanks because they need to yell about something big and scary, in spite of the fact that there’s not much tank smuggling in the world. Like the ATT, they’re really all about small arms.
Part of the reason that the CAC is so huge is that, like a flesh-eating bacteria, they’ve consumed most of the other progressive NGOs that back the treaty: only other big players, like Amnesty International, have escaped their jaws. Another delegate joked that they’re called Control Arms for a reason: First they control your arms, then your legs, and then your head. Not for nothing did Assistant Secretary of State Tom Countryman, in an excellent statement this morning for the U.S., emphasize that the treaty is an instrument for states, and states alone. NGOs are observers, no more, and the treaty has no role for a supranational secretariat.
But in spite of the sandcastle tank and similar inspired silliness, there’s a distinct sense that the air is coming out of the ATT’s balloon. The U.S., China, and India are here only as observers, and Russia didn’t show up at all. With only 121 attendees, there are 72 U.N. member states missing. True, a few delegations were apparently held up by visa problems (it’s rumored that some of the African delegations that Control Arms funded to attend were denied transit rights by the U.S., on the grounds that they’d committed human rights violations). But the blunt fact is that this room is filled mostly with nations that play, and can play,virtually no role in controlling or participating in the international arms trade.
That was strikingly evident this morning during the discussion of the treaty’s financial rules. The treaty’s to be funded by a modified version of the U.N.’s scale of assessments, under which the top rate is 22 percent and the minimum is 0.001 percent. Of the 130 nations that have signed or ratified the ATT, 59 are so poor that they would only pay the minimum, which in this case would be less than $100, which wouldn’t even cover the cost of collecting their dues. The decision will likely be taken to require everyone to pay at least $100, which at least covers costs. But if almost one half of the signatories are so hard up that paying $100 is a stretch, there is no way they have the administrative capacity to implement the treaty.