The first Conference of States Parties (CSP) to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) opens today in Cancun. Evidently, treaty signatories believe a seaside resort is a suitable location to discuss the international arms trade. Perhaps they’re right. This treaty is so ridiculous, so silly—in a word, so unserious—that it’s fit for beach reading.
The idea behind the ATT is that nations shouldn’t allow arms smuggling, and should show a little responsibility in who they sell arms to. Put that way, it’s a sensible idea. Unfortunately, multilateralism has a way of turning what is basically sensible into what is terribly foolish. Naturally, that’s not dissuaded the usual holier than thou crowd of Europeans and “progressive” (i.e. blame America first) non-governmental organizations from pulling the treaty into existence.
The purpose—at least, the nominal purpose—of the Cancun meeting is to create a treaty secretariat, decide how it is to be funded, and to set out the rules by which future meetings of the states parties (which, as the U.S. wisely hasn’t ratified the treaty, doesn’t include us) will be conducted. What’s really at stake at Cancun is both simpler and much harder: to try to prevent those America-blaming NGOs from taking over the treaty for their own ideological purposes.
What the NGOs demand, vociferously, is “transparency,” both in the conduct of the CSP and in the operation of the treaty going forward. As far as the NGOs are concerned, at least at the CSP, transparency means that they want a status close to that of the nations that are actually party to the treaty, which would be tantamount to giving them co-ownership of it.
I quite see why they want that. But it’s worthwhile to think a bit more carefully about the value and the paradoxes of transparency than the NGOs are inclined to do. There is, frankly, no way to make governments be fully transparent: if you mandate that their meetings at the CSP are open to all, then they will simply talk privately before the CSP. Public meetings are in a sense a performance, and all performances require rehearsals. If the rehearsal is public, there will be a private pre-rehearsal. And so the snake circles, eating its own tail. The idea that governments will and can only discuss matters relevant to the treaty at the CSP is childlike in its simplicity.
Moreover, the demand for transparency assumes that the CSP is a place where serious business will be done. That’s not mostly wrong—the Secretariat and the rules do matter—but it’s not mostly right either. For the last three years, I’ve attended meetings of (wait for it) the U.N. Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat, and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, mercifully usually abbreviated as the PoA. Before I went to my first meeting, I naively assumed that, since it was advertised as reviewing how nations are implementing the PoA, it would – well, you know, review how nations are implementing the PoA.
It didn’t. Except for criticizing the U.S., these meetings invariably proceed on the bland and unspoken assumption that nations like Syria, Iran, Russia, and China are responsible opponents of arms trafficking. Unlike the ATT, the PoA isn’t a treaty, but that’s the only difference between them. There is no reason to believe that future CSPs will not proceed just as the PoA meetings do: There will be little if any criticism of anyone except the U.S. (and Israel), and no serious assessment of whether the signatories are implementing their commitments. If you assume all nations are equal—and that is the founding assumption of the U.N. and of multilateral institutions more broadly—then it follows that no one is fit to assess anyone else. The failure of the system to pass judgement on the bad guys isn’t a bug—it is, in a way, a feature.