Tuesday, July 24, 2012

History in the making?

It's easy to be melodramatic, to be carried away by one's emotions. But this morning, we may well have been witnesses to the genesis of an Arms Trade Treaty worthy of the name. No one would claim that the draft was perfect--at times the drafting is embarassingly poor and the substance could still be stronger in many ways--but compared to our darkest fears, it was an almost miraculous step forward.

© Jesper Waldersten
We have a treaty that covers most major conventional weapons systems; includes all small arms and light weapons (and some munitions); and requires denial of authorisation where there is a substantial risk that the subject of a proposed transfer would be used to commit serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law or to violate the major terrorism treaties. It may be hyperbole, but President Moritan has made bringing Lazarus back from the dead look like a walk in Central Park.

He has clearly understood that there was no text--strong, weak or "third way"--that could ever have attracted consensus. Perhaps when you realise that you are going to be shot at dawn, you see things with a purity and a clarity that few achieve absent impending doom. It is still likely that what is put before the Diplomatic Conference on Friday (or, more likely, early Saturday morning), will be duly voted down by a small number of ultra-hard-core Contras. But the threat that many of us believed was simply bereft of substance can then be turned into reality. A two-thirds majority of States voting in the General Assembly will be able to adopt the first ever UN treaty setting common standards for the conventional arms trade.

We should not cry victory just yet. Russia did not intervene in the plenary today, and could still seek to scupper the process. But some 70 delegations did, most to praise the text as either a good or an excellent basis for negotiation. China has shown remarkable flexibility. The US has bullied, as it always does, but has not torpedoed the process and could still be a force for good if they really put their mind to it. Palestine made their first important intervention, calling for confirmation that unmanned aerial vehicles--drones--are covered by the treaty. That is certainly our reading, at least for armed drones--combat aircraft do not have to have a pilot to be so defined. But clarity is essential for these are the future of warfare, in many people's eyes.

Three days remain to tidy up the text, narrrow differences to the point where an agreement can be secured, and isolate the fifth columnists. But we have a draft text that could become a treaty that would pass the "Syria test". And given the twists and turns of the last three weeks, what better thoughts to keep in our minds as we watch history in the making than to enjoy the famous old quote of Dwight D. Eisenhower, a man who was himself a living contradiction:

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.  This world in arms is not spending money alone.  It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.  This is not a way of life at all in any true sense.  Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron." 

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