UN passes historic arms trade treaty to U.S. media silence

No major broadcast network has made even passing mention of a treaty that curtails trafficking to war-torn nations

Published April 3, 2013 10:10PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared in Media Matters for America.

THE UNITED NATIONS -- On the day the Arms Trade Treaty was scheduled to face a consensus vote by 193 countries, ending the years-long process to establish an international agreement to curtail arms trafficking to nations torn by conflict, I listened to a member of the Liberian delegation explain his country's concerns. "We wanted a much tighter treaty," he said, referring the large group of African countries most affected by the global black market arms trade. "Those of us who live in countries devastated by civil war very clearly understand the need for a strong regulatory framework to deter non-state actors from getting weapons. This is why we wanted a mechanism for risk-assessment, and why we wanted penalties."

Without the view from Liberia, it's hard to understand yesterday's headlines about the General Assembly's approval of the treaty. Which is why during two weeks of negotiations last month, African delegations could often be seen chatting with media from around the world. On the last day of the conference especially, the North Lawn building buzzed with reporters seeking perspectives. There were Russian and Arab TV crews, Japanese magazine journalists, and writers from at least half a dozen African publications. The U.S. media presence, hailing from the world's largest arms exporter, was harder to find. Which is to say, it was nearly impossible to find.

In two weeks of commingling with ATT delegates and observers, the only American reporters I met were Ginny Simone, the face of NRA News, and Richard Johnson, a freelancer who has covered the U.N. since Brezhnev, most recently for an obscure website called South-South News. "In terms of media, it's gotten pretty sleepy around here," said Johnson, before recounting the glory days of the 1970s. "Now it's more about Twitter than press conferences. The institutional media only flocks when North Korea does something, or there's drama in the Security Council."

This lack of media presence was reflected in the pages of the nation's largest newspapers, which largely ignored the treaty negotiations. The Washington Post was a no-show. So was The Wall Street JournalThe Los Angeles Times reported from the West Coast on a State Department press release and published a story on the treaty's passage credited to "Times Staff and Wire Reports."

Lapping the field, The New York Times published three full-length reports with a U.N. dateline, two news briefs, and a table-setting piece at the start of the treaty conference. The paper benefits from investing in a full-time UN beat reporter, Neil MacFarquhar, as well as a New York-based foreign desk writer who covers the body, Rick Gladstone; the LA Times, by contrast, dispatches a New York-based reporter when they deem it necessary.

None of the major broadcast networks appear to have found the treaty worthy of even a passing mention on their airwaves. Nor did CNN, the cable network historically most interested in world news. The only major cable news channel to show up was Fox News, which relied so heavily on NRA talking points for its anti-treaty coverage that the dishes on its sat-truck outside the UN gate reminded one of turrets on an enemy tank.

The dearth of media interest runs counter to the last month's historic events, as the U.N. finally capped two decades of study groups and negotiations spanning most of the continents. On Tuesday 154 countries defied the National Rifle Association and voted yea on a treaty with aspirations to do for global arms flows what a similar majority of Americans wants done for the domestic gun market: put regulations in place to stop zealots, criminals, and terrorists from acquiring weapons and wreaking havoc. The resulting treaty is not perfect, but represents what advocates call a crucial first step in staunching the flood of lethal weapons to conflict sites around the world.

When treaty advocates initiated what became the ATT process back in the early 1990s, they imagined an airtight international version of the universal background-checks law now being discussed for U.S. gun sales. The civil society groups who spearheaded the initiative sought a U.N. monitoring system with credibility and resources -- research staff, enforcement mechanisms, penalties -- capable of tracking and staunching the gushes of grey- and black-market arms now flooding conflict zones and fueling human rights abuses and atrocities. It was a unique idea in the annals of international attempts to strengthen global peace and security. The ATT was not to be a disarmament treaty or a weapons ban, but a weapons transfer and licensing regime.

The final treaty text that emerged last week from a second two-week round of consensus sausage grinding was not quite the victory many advocates had hoped for, but it was probably not far from what they had a right to expect, given their task. The treaty as adopted is no panacea but a voluntary regime with no enforcement body or penalty threat; it simply asks states to exercise judgment and restraint, according to self-proscribed criteria, in the transfer and export of conventional arms and ammunition to parties involved in "genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, attacks directed against civilian objects" or other war crimes.

This may be how fledgling norms are hatched, but there are some doubts as to whether the treaty is capable of deterring the targeted misbehavior anytime soon. On the day the final text was released, Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association reflected the generally tepid NGO response when he recommended the final draft as "a good step forward," adding the caveat that only "over time" will the treaty "help tip the scales in favor of human rights and human security." In private conversation, representatives from pro-treaty groups described the compromise draft as "something to build on" and "better than nothing." Their mood improved on the day of the General Assembly vote, as the long-awaited finish line approached -- Kimball now hailed the event as "an important, historic step forward" -- but no one denies that questions and a lot of work remain moving into the implementation phase.

The attempt to tame the raging bull that is the $70 billion global arms trade all but guaranteed disappointment. Understanding why begins in the Security Council, where the countries with the most clout in the closed sessions where treaty language is crafted also happen to be the world's biggest arms exporters. Like all states, the Big Five use weapons sales to strengthen strategic industries, and as tools of foreign policy and national security. The major exporters were never likely to hand significant oversight powers to a U.N. monitoring body. The same is true at the other end of the trade, where a wide range of arms importing states formed a "skeptical" bloc and expressed concern that exporting countries would wield the treaty as a political tool and constrain their access to weapons. In their statements rejecting the treaty last Thursday, Iran, Syria, and North Korea expressed this fear with bombast, but it was hardly a fringe view. With the major exporters and the skeptical states working against a strong treaty, it fell mostly to a coalition of African countries and civil society groups to agitate for something resembling the original "robust" vision for the treaty including strict monitoring, risk-assessment criteria, and penalties.

The fact that the treaty contains none of these makes it something of an outlier among UN treaties. "The ATT doesn't have many of the things a U.N. treaty would normally include," said Robert Zuber, director of the pro-treaty group Global Action to Prevent War and Armed Conflict. "There is no implementation support, no body that can request reports and subpoena people. We've spent 10 years fussing over a piece of paper that has no culture attached to it. Treaties don't create behavior by themselves."

The largest failure of the treaty text, argues a leading expert on the illicit arms market, may be the passing mention of brokers and middlemen. "The treaty devotes just two sentences to the intermediaries who arrange many deals, but they're the ones who sanction-bust, divert, and siphon," said Kathi Lynn Austin, a veteran trafficking investigator and director of the Conflict Awareness Project who worked with Interpol to break up the network operated by Victor Bout's lieutenants following the Russian kingpin's 2010 arrest. "The treaty focuses on regulating arms deals between governments, but the intent was always to identify and stop illicit diversion along the way. Without a licensing and registration body that monitors the brokers, they'll continue moving about and exploiting loopholes like they always have."

And yet, despite the lack of enforcement and oversight bodies, and despite a middleman loophole big enough to fit an M1 Abrams tank, the NGOs who led the effort are right to celebrate the treaty as a hard-won piece of incremental progress. Even Austin, who understands better than anyone the difficult, slippery realities of illicit arms flows, readily admits the treaty can be useful in providing civil society groups with something to point to as they agitate for compliance and more stringent rules down the line. "[The treaty] represents a floor, not a ceiling for common sense behavior," notes Kimball of the Arms Control Association. There will be opportunity to debate the condition of this floor at the ATT's first review conference in 2016.

Until then, the treaty's most dedicated and single-minded foe can be counted on to do everything in its power to make sure the fragile aspirations embodied by the treaty do not survive the crib.

The American gun lobby has been more than just a travelling clown show in the two decades of U.N. work that culminated in yesterday's General Assembly vote. The National Rifle Association and its affiliated groups are generally credited with stymying progress at the 2001 U.N. Conference on the Illicit Arms Trade. Its ferocious misinformation campaign conducted in the conservative media last July may have influenced the Obama administration's decision to let the negotiations collapse months before a presidential election. Even when their impact has been minimal, their non-sequiturs about the Second Amendment could be counted on to suck minutes from the day's agenda. "They just take up time from the negotiations," said Zuber, of Global Action to Prevent War and Armed Conflict.

The NRA's efforts to thwart what it calls the "U.N.'s never-ending mission to disarm the American people" dates to the first Clinton administration. As Media Matters recounted in its report on July's ATT talks, the NRA became interested in the U.N. with the establishment of the U.N. Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms. To maintain a presence in the process, it set up an umbrella group called the World Forum on the Future of Sport Shooting Activities and gained observer status for the Small Arms Panel and a subsequent series of regional U.N. workshops across Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

This is around the time Wayne LaPierre began fundraising off loud warnings about "global gun grabbers." In 1996, the NRA's lobbying arm publically called on Senator Jesse Helms to deny funds to any U.N. program related to "small arms used by the civilian population in the United States." This included weapons destruction programs in war-torn regions in Africa and the Balkans. When the U.N. Small Arms panel published its first major report in 1997, the NRA warned its members, "A multi-national cadre of gun-ban extremists is lobbying the United Nations, demanding [a] virtual worldwide ban on firearms ownership... What would happen if the UN demands gun confiscation on American soil?" These hysterics continued into the Bush years, and by 2006, LaPierre merely had to cull a decade's worth of NRA fax and email alerts for his book, The Global War on Your Guns: Inside the UN Plan To Destroy the Bill of Rights.

When the newly elected Obama administration announced support for the treaty in 2009, the NRA surprised no one by responding with a robo-call campaign warning Americans about the coming global gun-grab. This forced the other players in the process -- from the U.S. Secretary of State to the Disarmament Bureau responsible for maintaining the official ATT website -- to spend time and energy addressing the make-believe fears and real-world tantrums of the gun group. "The NRA proved impervious to the reality that there was never, at any point, anything in the scope of the treaty that was inconsistent with U.S. law or practice," says Jeff Abramson, a policy advisor to the pro-treaty coalition Control Arms. Scott Stedjan, a senior advisor to Oxfam, notes that the rationale behind the gun lobby's opposition is undermined by their acceptance of the federal Arms Export Control Act, which sets a far higher standard for international arms shipments than anything in the ATT. "NRA opposition to the treaty has always been a political issue, not a factual issue," says Stedjan.

This political issue starts with an ideological antipathy to the very concept of international law, and stretches into the fantasy of a blue-helmet gun confiscation invasion. Somewhere in the middle is the gun industry's more realistic fear of future administrative compliance obligations resulting from the U.S. being party to the treaty. A survey of gun lobby literature suggests they both fear the costs of compliance obligations and deeply resent the possibility of being subjected to administrative inconvenience just to so a bunch of do-gooders can reduce the body counts of dirty and distant Third World conflicts.

The NRA's anti-ATT statement promises their members and industry partners will "never face a burden imposed by foreign bureaucrats." The Heritage Foundation's Ted Bromund highlights the possibility of the treaty creating "burdensome requests on U.S. industry." Charles Zach of Canada's National Firearms Association likewise decries the treaty's potential to create an "unnecessary and expensive administrative burden." Richard Patterson of the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute dismisses attempts to track ammunition as a "feel-good-do-nothing proposal" that would force manufacturers to "divert valuable resources" while ignoring the "many positive benefits to society [provided by] firearms in the hands of law-abiding citizens."

Last week, the NRA tried to out-maneuver any possible burdens imposed in the future by attempting to get what it called "civilian weapons" excluded from the scope of the treaty. This represented a compromise on its original position -- at one point shared by China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, and Venezuela -- to exclude all small arms, period. This back-up position at least demonstrated creativity. Even if a distinction between "military" and "civilian" small arms wasn't totally imaginary -- does anyone care if the 9mm pointed at them is the standard sidearm of the Turkish military, or America's bestselling retail Glock? -- it is a distinction NRA & Co. have lost all rights to invoke. For 30 years, the gun industry and lobby have seen their coffers swell from the successful marketing of military-styled weapons and add-ons to suburban gun owners. Meanwhile, at the far reaches of the gun lobby galaxy, quiet planning goes on for a push to eliminate the regulatory wall separating the retail market from the ultimate "military" weapon: the fully automatic machine gun.

The face of this effort made its first appearance at the treaty negotiations last week in the form of Jeff Folloder, a former data analyst who is emerging as the Wayne LaPierre of the machine-gun lobby. His Texas-based trade association, the NFA Trade & Collectors Association, advocates for loosening National Firearms Act regulation so that Americans can more freely enjoy what its newsletter (distributed at NRA conventions) euphemistically calls "a complete level of responsible firearm ownership." In order to pass on a complete level of enthusiasm for these weapons to the next generation, the group encourages members to "take a youngster out to shoot your [fully automatic] weapons." Because for the gun lobby, it doesn't matter whether you're in the Congo or suburban Chicago. Nothing goes together like children and machine guns.

By Alexander Zaitchik

Alexander Zaitchik is a journalist living in New Orleans.

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