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The World Is Vulnerable -- UN Arms Trade Treaty Talks Fail, Again

The "global gun grab" that isn't.


THE UNITED NATIONS -- It was during one of several extended delays on day five of the Arms Trade Treaty talks that the chief of the British delegation, a jovial veteran diplomat named Jo Adamson, turned to me and wanted to know if I'd ever watched  The Benny Hill Show.

"You know the musical theme when Benny gets chased around by the police and they speed up the film?" she asked. "I want to make a video of that song playing over Tuesday's scene of musical chairs."

The idea was a happy diplomatic warrior's response to the comedic low-point of the negotiations' disastrous first week, in which 193 national delegations, eager to begin a long-planned attempt at regulating the global conventional arms trade, were forced to choreograph a globe-spanning seating shift to accommodate two Palestinian observers, debate over whose status had made a train wreck of the agenda and preempted the speeches of several foreign ministers in town for the opening session. Adamson wasn't the only UN diplomat with experience taking such chaos in stride. Anyone who has been around Turtle Bay and Geneva long enough knows the ATT won't be the last UN effort to strengthen global security to be threatened by soul sucking stretches of procedural purgatory.

The fact that the ATT conference's first week lent itself so easily to  Benny Hill spoofs is a good place to begin considering the massive gulf separating the actual treaty being negotiated by consensus at the UN this month, and the Iran-directed Second Amendment-eating Golem of conservative imagination. The hysterical screeching of so much right-wing opposition to the ATT is the product of many things, but direct experience with the inner workings of the UN system does not appear to be among them.

"Everyone who has spent any time here knows we're lucky if we can get a time frame for debate worked out," said Robert Zuber of Global Action to Prevent War, who has 20 years experience with the UN and supports the passage of a treaty. "This idea that a UN treaty concerning international arms flows could somehow override the Constitution or the Supreme Court, this idea that it will lead to UN police marching down the streets taking people's guns away -- everyone here knows it's beyond ludicrous."

That the ATT is no opening salvo in a global gun-grab -- a charge made in various forms recently by National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre,  The Washington Times, Dick Morris, and  a number of others appearing on Fox News -- does not mean the talks are without stakes. National delegations and NGOs are gathered in New York through July 27 to address a lack of common international standards guiding the import, export, and transfer of conventional arms and munitions. As Amnesty International activists have dramatized by  handing out bananas in Times and Trafalgar Squares, more rules govern the inter-state trade of fruits and vegetables than tanks and machine guns. Just over 50 nations regulateinternational arms dealers inside their territory according to the Arms Control Association; only half of those have any sort of penalties for breaking national laws. ATT proponents maintain that a treaty is the first step in shrinking the booming international black and grey market arms trade that fuels civil conflicts, arms warlords and criminal syndicates, and facilitates the breaking of arms embargos. According to an Oxfam  report, countries operating under arms embargoes have succeeded in importing more than $2.2 billion worth of arms and ammunition since 2000.

The Obama administration is a relatively conservative actor on the ATT spectrum, and its reversal of the previous government's rejection of the ATT was predicated on the final treaty language being approved by consensus. U.S. presence at the conference is supported by major human rights and development NGOs, leading U.S. defense contractors, active and retired  senior military staff, and a number of  civic and religious groups such as the  National Council of Churches.

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