Supporters of human rights treaties tend to pour a remarkable amount of energy into promoting treaty ratification, while spending remarkably little time thinking about the problems of assessing compliance and, ultimately, whether the treaty is actually working. That’s certainly been the case with advocates of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The consequences of this modus operandi are evident here in Cancun, where the states signed onto the pact are holding their first meeting.
Don’t be misled by its title. The ATT is really a human rights treaty; it has human rights standards at its core. And like all human rights treaties, it can’t be enforced within the context of the agreement. If you and I sign a trade treaty and you cheat, I can impose tariffs on you, which incentivizes you not to cheat. If you and I agree not to build battleships and you then run off and build one, I can do likewise, which nullifies the effect of your cheating. But if you and I sign a treaty agreeing not to slap our journalists around, and you slap yours around anyhow, what am I supposed to do – retaliate by slapping mine around? Obviously not. The only way you can enforce a human rights treaty is to take action outside the context of the treaty itself.
Of course, enforcing a treaty presumes you know what it’s about in the first place. And it’s not clear that there’s much agreement on this point in Cancun. If there is one thing the treaty is not, it’s an arms control and disarmament treaty. The entire concept on which the treaty rests is that the arms trade is a legitimate business that nations engage in, above all, for purposes of national defense. Though this gives short shrift to the role (and rights) of businesses and individuals, and places dictatorships and democracies on the same plane, it’s reasonable enough on its own terms.
But you don’t have to be at Cancun long to get the sense that quite a few diplomats here (never mind the NGOs) don’t entirely grasp the point. That’s partly because a lot of the diplomats come from disarmament offices, so references to arms control pepper their speeches. Legal commentators are starting to follow suit. The U.N., too, is extremely careless with how it refers to the ATT – witness these U.N. fellowships on disarmament (including the ATT), for example. This tendency is all the more unfortunate now that the Cancun meeting has chosen Geneva, the center of the U.N.’s arms control and disarmament efforts, as the home of the ATT’s secretariat. Indeed, the ATT will likely end up sharing offices with the U.N. programs. As one delegate put it to me, the bacteria of the ATT has found a fertile home in the Geneva petri dish.
And then there is the fraught subject of gun control. Calling the ATT a gun grab is unsubtle, and I have never called it that. But the rolling display of tweets over our heads in the conference hall from the pro-treaty groups features news about domestic gun crime, and implies the ATT is relevant to stopping it. The hallway of the conference center is filled with a huge display on gun crime in Mexico, replete with the usual dubious claims about U.S. responsibility for it. Many of the leading figures in the campaign for the treaty are old-time gun controllers. And NGOs like Reaching Critical Will don’t hesitate to claim that “good practices on regulations of the possession of firearms and human rights” are among the human rights standards implied by the treaty. There is, in short, a persistent, though not deafening, gun control noise surrounding the ATT, and a sense that, if the NGOs had their way, the treaty would head sharply in that direction.
Even more annoying, though, is the general disinterest in the fact that the basic problem with the arms trade isn’t a lack of standards for who gets to buy tanks. It’s that about half the nations in this hall don’t have the administrative capacity to enforce any standards at all, to control their borders, or indeed to do much else. And then, of course, there are the many nations – including a few in attendance at Cancun – that actively and corruptly connive in the arms trade, or deliberately sell arms to other dictatorships, terrorists, and the like.