Obama Refuses to Sign Arms Trade Treaty

By Shazia Z. Rafi, in Women’s Media Center, Aug. 7, 2012.

“Yes, yes the calculations are correct, we bill the Navy cost plus 14 percent,” said my boss at General Electric’s aircraft engine group, where I was a financial management trainee in 1980. Seeing my incredulous expression, he added “arms are a big business for us.” Three decades later the legal trade in weapons is estimated at $60 billion annually.

In 1996 Nobel Laureates together called for a treaty to regulate this trade. Sixteen years later, a powerful movement of NGO activists, legislators and governments willing to regulate themselves came together at the United Nations in the sweltering July heat to negotiate the final text. Bit by bit resistance to different clauses was worn down—small arms and light weapons would be included; arms exports to the worst human rights abusers would be prohibited; ammunition would be covered; the number of countries whose legislatures needed to ratify the treaty could be far less than a majority of the UN membership—all major milestones.

Eventually the resistance came down to a few of the largest exporters of arms (the United States, Russia, China), the largest importer (India), and few countries with a bad human rights record. Nevertheless, the mood was buoyant. More than 2000 legislators from 113 countries have signed a parliamentary declaration of support presented to the UN secretary-general at the opening of the Diplomatic Conference for the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

In the NGO coalitions we alternated between euphoria and despair. The last week our group intensively campaigned with U.S. legislators to join their colleagues and support the ATT declaration. One senator was reviewing the declaration till midnight two days before the closing of the negotiations on July 27th. The next day, however, opponents from the gun lobby ratcheted up the pressure and persuaded 51 U.S. senators to send President Obama and Secretary Clinton an anti-ATT letter. Thankfully none of our members had signed it. But it had its effect by freezing in its tracks any sign of courage that the Obama administration was mustering up. On Friday July 27, hours before the UN conference closed, the U.S. delegation, representing the largest exporter of arms in the world, said it needed more time—this year was not possible for them to join and hence the treaty should be postponed to next year—thus halting the process, in the words of Amnesty International’s Suzanne Nossel, “to consult with itself.” With the conference rules requiring consensus, this statement torpedoed the treaty.

The NGOs and 90 “like-minded” countries led by Mexico, a country deluged in weapons smuggled from across the U.S. border, were ready with a counter statement registering their disappointment and their will to use all options including taking the ATT to the UN General Assembly in a few months. Argentine Ambassador Roberto Garcia Moritan, who had been chairing the ATT Preparatory Committees and the final negotiations, emerged from the room, red in the face, tears glistening to vow that the fight would continue, “there will be an ATT this year, the majority of countries in the room were willing to sign it; the majority of parliaments are willing to ratify it, members will take it to the UNGA [General Assembly], consensus is no longer necessary.”

As we reassessed and reviewed our position, I went back to consult with the women legislators who had worked intensively on the signature campaigns. “Very disappointing indeed, I canvassed a private dinner to get 94 Ghanaian legislators to sign,” said Irene Torshie Addo, MP from Ghana. For those whose countries, like Sierra Leone, have been riven by conflict, where the UN is managing transition through peace-keeping, tribunals and post-conflict development, it is even more painful. “After three decades of brutal war, I have traveled thousands of miles to the UN on several occasions to advocate for the ATT, advocate in my own region for the ratification of the Economic Community of West African States Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons [SALW] and of the Establishment of the National Commission on SALW in my country; I am truly at a loss,” said Dr. Bernadette Lahai, MP from Sierra Leone.

With constituents in both Santo Domingo and the Washington Heights Dominican community, Diputada Minou Tavarez Mirabal has a unique understanding of the pressures of a U.S. election. “I am convinced that after the Rome Statue [establishing the International Criminal Court], the ATT is perhaps the most important treaty that the international community has endeavored in recent years,” she said. “That is why we were able to convince 120 Dominican legislators to sign on; all countries must join.”

Legislators from several arms exporting countries were able to support the treaty as were their governments. Germany is the world’s fifth largest exporter of conventional weapons and yet a strong supporter of regulating that trade with a robust treaty. Uta Zapf, MP, Bundestag, insisted consensus rules must not weaken “the provisions for human rights that arms are not sent, trade or otherwise, to those countries where there is abuse of human rights or possibility of conflict going up.”

What seems to have been a lesson not learned by the ATT’s opponents is that trading in weapons does not mean one cannot regulate them. In Australia, the second largest buyer of arms in the world, arms possession is tightly regulated. “We learnt a major lesson from the Port Arthur Massacre in 1996,” stated Melissa Parke, MP, Australia, referring to a 1996 killing spree in Tasmania. “A strong coalition for gun control emerged. I have personally seen the consequences of an unregulated trade in weapons as a UN peace-keeping officer in the Kosovo, Gaza.”

In a side event to the treaty negotiations arranged by my organization, Parliamentarians for Global Action (PGA), several delegates referred to the factor of corruption driving the trade. From Pakistan, a nation awash in weapons with disputes on both borders, came a plea for regulation from Dr. Donya Aziz, MP: “For Pakistan a standardized certification for the movement of arms is very much needed. Corruption needs to be addressed in this framework; arms are illegally leaving and entering a country, which unless specifically targeted, is difficult to control. This needs to be addressed by governments and legislators together.”

While the Arms Trade Treaty will only be dealing with the legal trade in weapons, its supporters and detractors see it as a first step in regulating arms transfers and societal violence. “Treaties are meaningless unless there is national implementation,” says Dr. Jackie Blue, MP, New Zealand. Implementation that tackles the violence at its root, including gender-based violence, is one of the key demands of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) Committee, which met at the same time as the ATT negotiations. “As a doctor I am very pleased that all women 16 years and over are screened for domestic violence in our all our hospitals,” implying that communities with unregulated arms have also the parallel problem of gender-based violence.

When the world comes back from summer recess in a few weeks, several paths lie ahead for the treaty’s promoters. The focus will continue via a joint event by Mexico and the PGA in the Small Arms Light Weapons Review Conference starting August 27. The ATT text will go back to the United Nations Disarmament and International Security Committee (also known as the First Committee) with the possibility of presenting the treaty for vote to UN General Assembly, where it could be adopted by two-thirds majority. The key here is when—before or after the U.S. elections. The UN General Assembly starts in September but continues through November, so it is plausible that the treaty could be presented to the UNGA after November 6. However, proponents of an earlier adoption are worried that waiting for one election will open an excuse for other countries to dither as the majority of countries now have elected governments and face their own election schedules. Other options outside the UN also exist, but in my view a treaty negotiated through the UN has more global legitimacy.

Democratic elections, however, should be a strength not a hurdle to peace. When it returns from recess, Congress should on second sober thought join their international colleagues to support the ATT. If 2094 legislators who regularly face elections in 113 countries can lead from the front on arms control, I, as a hyphenated citizen of the United States and Pakistan, ask my two elected presidents, in Washington and Islamabad, whenever the ATT comes up for a vote, for your citizens’ sake, vote “yes.”


Shazia Z. Rafi is secretary-general of Parliamentarians for Global Action.



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