Living Up to the Statue

After two decades of advocacy, we finally have a U.N. Arms Trade Treaty.

AFP / Getty Images
AFP / Getty Images

Beltway insiders yawned at the progress of the United Nations’ Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the first treaty to regulate the massive global trade in conventional weapons that are responsible for most conflict deaths worldwide, from its near death in the summer of 2012 to its Easter-week resurrection and General Assembly passage. But if you’re interested in international regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, financial transactions, nuclear weapons or the Internet — or if you’re opposed to any and all regulation and want to know how the United States can stave it off — then consider the Curious Case of the Idea that Wouldn’t Die.

The ATT is the child of a 1990s observation — that the civilian carnage of developing-country violence sprang not just from ideological conflict or ineffable ethnic hatreds, but from a globalized trade in black- or grey-market small arms — married to organizing techniques of the information age. Its passage is the revenge of the much-maligned "clicktivist," the middle powers that use the United Nations as a power-multiplier, and the Nobel Peace laureates who led the charge. In some small way, it is also the U.N. system’s revenge on John Bolton, who worked so tirelessly to discredit the ATT and the U.N. system in general. Finally, it is a testament to the oldest, least trendy trick in the advocacy playbook: what Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, who worked for the treaty’s passage both at Amnesty International USA and at the U.S. Department of State, calls "a determined group from civil society waging the long war."

In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, rights campaigners identified a troubling trend: Where small arms move cheaply and unaccountably, conflict with devastating civilian consequences tends to follow. (Think Libyan weapons flooding into Mali.) According to Amnesty International, roughly 60 percent of documented human rights violations involve the use of small arms. In Colombia, nine out of 10 civilian victims of internal strife are killed with small arms. A French parliamentary inquiry concluded that even in Rwanda in 1994, where the vast majority of genocide victims were killed with agricultural tools, it was vast shipments of conventional weapons that emboldened the perpetrators to launch the mass killing.

By 1993, concern about the effects of the arms trade had grown strong enough that members of both the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe made non-legally-binding commitments to trade arms responsibly and with consideration for human rights.

Brian Wood, now Amnesty International’s manager of arms control, security trade and human rights, recalls that making those commitments legally-binding "was an idea that seemed obvious to four of us in an Amnesty International room in 1993, looking at examples of the arms trade contributing to very serious human rights violations." But how to transform that intuitive idea into 154 "yes" votes on the floor of the United Nations had Wood and other advocates tearing their hair out for years.

Wood recalls getting lawyers from Oxford and Cambridge Universities to write up a treaty text and then promoting it around the European Union. They found a champion in former Costa Rican president, Nobel laureate, and peace activist Oscar Arias, who invited them to present the draft treaty to a convention of Nobel peace prize winners, including former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, chief U.N. arms inspector Richard Butler, and the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker lobbying organization. (Note to funders: please don’t assume this is a replicable strategy!)

Arias’s effort globalized the idea and slowly interested human rights leaders like Finland and Tanzania, as well as countries like Cambodia and Mozambique, whose citizens had paid a high price for conflict. Remember when then-Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) and Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) got a Republican Congress to mandate that the U.S. negotiate an international code of conduct for arms transfers with human rights at its center? Human rights campaigners do.

But the ultimate goal of an arms trade treaty remained elusive. In 2003, several big Western non-governmental organizations (NGOs) launched a consortium called Control Arms, which came to include more than 100 partner organizations from 120 countries, from West Africa to Brazil to Tajikistan to Afghanistan. At the same time, significant local expertise and advocacy power grew up in Central American countries racked by violence — first associated with politics and later with drugs — as well as in post-conflict countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone. Advocates from these regions gave the effort global legitimacy — and significant emotional power aimed back at the West.

Arms control advocates got a big break in 2005, when Tony Blair’s Labour government decided to throw British support behind an arms trade treaty — not entirely coincidentally, as British politics were racked with recriminations over the failure to discover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Britain was the first major arms supplier to support treaty regulation. (Someday, someone will write a book about how British NGOs incubated and exported the ideas that became the ATT, the George W. Bush administration’s AIDS initiative, and corporate social responsibility, giving Britannic self-righteousness — with a nod to the Irish for Bono — its deserved superpower status.)

In 2006, Control Arms pulled off perhaps the biggest U.N.-targeted feat of online activism ever, sending a "Million Faces" to New York. Later that year, the U.N. General Assembly voted to ask the Secretariat to explore an arms trade treaty. But the George W. Bush administration voted "no" and civil society and government campaigners alike assumed that, with other big arms exporters like Russia sheltering behind Washington’s opposition, no effective regime could be created. 

But campaigners slyly shifted gears, sending record number of submissions to the Secretary General on how to create effective, commonsense monitoring of arms transfers. They also began to leverage their expertise, which sometimes exceeded that of diplomats and negotiators, partnering with governments and the private sector to hold seminars on how trade oversight — of the kind that the U.S. and European governments already had in place — would work.

By 2009, when the General Assembly voted to begin treaty negotiations, the only "no" vote came from Zimbabwe. The new Obama administration, though it had not prioritized the ATT or even spoken much about it publicly, chose to position itself to protect U.S. concerns within the negotiating process by voting for the treaty. The Control Arms groups had mounted a worldwide campaign and placed a giant pair of eyeglasses in the U.N. lobby: "We are watching you," they said.

Over the next three years, U.S. negotiators obtained key concessions that enabled the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights to write that the treaty "would not require new domestic regulations of firearms" and was "consistent with the Second Amendment." Campaigners agonized about whether those and other concessions made the treaty worthwhile, but they also obtained concessions of their own, including partial regulation of ammunition transfers, which had been thought impossible.

But then another NGO, the National Rifle Association (
NRA), entered the fray and virulently opposed the treaty. It insisted the ATT would not only compromise Second Amendment rights, but that it would lead inexorably to further domestic regulation.

When the treaty text came toward a vote in the summer of 2012, the NRA’s energetic activism, coupled with its fearsome reputation in a tight election year, was enough to inspire a letter from 51 U.S. senators asking the administration to vote against any treaty that violated Second Amendment rights. On the very last day of negotiations, the United States announced that it would not support the text; Russia and China quickly followed suit.

While Washington declared the treaty dead, the campaigners got busy, promoting statements of support from defense industry leaders like this one from Rolls Royce: "The aim of an ATT is to regulate global trade in conventional arms more effectively, not to reduce or to limit the scope for legal trade." Large industry calculated wisely that it would benefit from being at the negotiating table, and from creating a distinction between "legitimate" arms deals and "illicit" ones.

U.N. officials and leading government supporters expected the treaty to do better in 2013, after the U.S. election. Its path may also have been smoothed by the tragic shootings in Newtown, Conn., and the way the subsequent U.S. gun safety debate seemed to separate the NRA from its base of citizen gun owners — a lesson campaigners of all stripes might consider.

The United States initially insisted that the treaty text be subject to adoption by consensus. But when it became clear that North Korea, Iran, and Syria would block the initiative, treaty supporters sought to find another avenue. Their subsequent decision to seek approval by a majority vote in the General Assembly may be one of this process’s most important outcomes because it clearly placed dissenters on the wrong side of mobilized global public opinion — a coup that Washington had not been able to pull off with decades of sanctions or four years of "strategic communications."

Now the campaigners have their treaty. But does actually it matter?

Nossel looks at the track record of recent U.N. conventions that gained similar support from private citizens and sees grounds for optimism: "The pattern that we see is that even countries that don’t sign change their behavior… the use of landmines, for example, is stigmatized and delegitimized," she said in an interview. Since the negotiation of a land mines treaty in 1997, for example, land mine fatalities have dropped by almost two-thirds, and only one country — Assad’s Syria — laid new land mines in 2012. Similar progress has been made with the International Criminal Court. Just last month a Congolese warlord decided that he was better off facing ICC indictment than his foes on the battlefield — and chose to surrender to an American embassy, probably unaware that the George W. Bush administration attempted to "unsign" the ICC statute in 2002.

Don Kraus, president and CEO of, puts it more bluntly: "if this is anything, it’s a tool for civil society to beat their governments on the head."

Jeff Abramson, a policy advisor at Control Arms, sees the ATT process as another step in the maturation process of global civil society: "Civil society is now recognized as a driver and actor for international regimes in ways that may not have been true before, certainly before the Mine Ban Treaty. A part of civil society’s value is its expertise — which is separate from its mobilization ability — and I think you’d find all states agreeing that civil society brought knowledge and useful suggestions to the effort," he said in an interview.

Which returns us to greenhouse gases, nuclear weapons, and Internet security. In commercial, intellectual, and scientific pursuits, it is increasingly the case — and not just in the developing world — that more expertise resides outside governments than in. That expertise now has its own channels to influence top policymakers and drive public opinion, abroad and in the United States. As numerous academics have pointed out, those networks don’t fit well inside classical political science theories of power — and their fit with how American politics engages with the world is even worse. But they can shape the terrain on which U.S. power operates, and limit — or expand — the options open to U.S. policymakers. They have created facts on the ground — or, in the landmines case, facts no longer on the ground. Taking a cold look at how they do it — and incorporating strategies for influencing and working with networked global civil society — is the ultimate form of realism.

Heather Hurlburt is a senior advisor at the National Security Network and has served as a special assistant and speechwriter to President Bill Clinton and as a State Department speechwriter and member of the department's policy planning staff. Twitter: @natsecHeather

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