UN members last month failed to reach agreement on the Arms Trade Treaty after a month-long conference. This is the latest setback in a decades old attempt to control the trade in small arms. A broad network of states, NGOs, and the UN bureaucracy had pushed for the treaty and earlier measures. In their view, proliferation of guns contributes to hundreds of thousands of casualties per year in conflict zones and to large numbers of shooting deaths in countries at peace.
But the international campaign to control the illicit trade in small arms has long faced skepticism from certain states, most notably the U.S, but also Russia, China, India, and others. For an interactive map of state views on the ATT, click here
. Since its start in the early 1990s, the campaign has also faced outright opposition
from NGOs such as America’s National Rifle Association. The NRA and other American gun groups have joined with overseas counterparts to promote gun rights and the right to self-defense. Most notable is the World Forum on the Future of Sport Shooting Activities (WFSA) and more recently the International Association for the Protection of Civilian Arms Rights (IAPCAR). The groups help one another in their own countries and work together to lobby states against international gun control.
It is this network, spanning governments and NGOs, that killed the ATT. The Obama administration administered the coup d’grace, but other American politicians and civil society groups strongly influenced this decision. Other states cheered them on, if only privately. All of this holds important lessons for studying international policymaking and transnational advocacy.
The ATT had been billed as an alternative to a prior, failed try at controlling the illicit trade, in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This began as the Cold War ended and ethnic warfare became the fear du jour of the early ’90s (as terrorism is today), with gun proliferation blamed for much of the bloodshed. The Bush administration gutted that attempt in 2001, using a UN conference’s consensus rules to allow only the nonbinding Programme of Action on Small Arms (PoA). The PoA was so weak that a key proponent of small arms control, Human Rights Watch, dubbed it a “program of inaction” and shuttered its campaign. Nonetheless, this zombie policy—alive on paper but in reality dead—lurched along until 2006, when the U.S. finally killed the PoA completely at another UN confab.
The ATT was supposed to be different, negotiated only by likeminded states and without the consensus rules that allowed key opponents to block an effective PoA. In the Bush era, this seemed the best that could be achieved, given the close ties between gun groups and the U.S. administration. But keeping America out of the ATT negotiations would have led to another form of zombieism—a key arms exporter not part of the treaty, notwithstanding the fact that the U.S. already has some of the world’s toughest export controls. Thus when the Obama administration took office and expressed interest in the ATT, members of the ATT coalition opted to allow it in, accepting its demand that consensus rules again be followed and U.S. laws be used as a basis for negotiations. (At the time, a number of activists raised red flags, warning that it could end with the ATT’s failure, but to no avail.)
From the start, American gun groups decried the ATT because of its supposed threat to American gun rights. State negotiators did their best to reduce controversial issues. And by the end of the conference last month, a cascade of some 90 states supported the text. But opposition remained strong in many states, particularly to the marking of ammunition and to sales of guns to nonstate actors. In the U.S., opposition was particularly ferocious, as encapsulated in a letter
signed by 51 U.S. Senators, including Democrats, expressing “grave concern” about the “dangers” to U.S. sovereignty and individual rights under the Second Amendment. The Senators, voicing the views of American gun groups, warned that the treaty’s draft text could force the U.S. to monitor and control domestic transfers, to maintain records of imports and shipments, and to increase regulations to prevent transfers to illicit or unintended end users.
Farfetched? Although the intent of the draft was clearly to control the illicit international trade, its terms, if broadly construed, could be read in these ways. And there is little doubt that in an issue as hot as guns, American control advocates would have read them in this way, to score points and influence judicial and legislative outcomes. The real menace to American gun rights is doubtless small, given the power of the Second Amendment and the fact that, even if the U.S. had signed, the 51 Senators opposing the draft, meant that the ATT could not be ratified. But the vehement opposition is nonetheless explicable as part of the bitter warfare between gun and gun control proponents in the U.S.
Ultimately, in an election year, the Obama administration bowed to these pressures and refused to agree to the final draft of the ATT. Some gun groups celebrated this “grassroots victory” for the right to self-defense, but others, like a commentator at Ammoland
, were more cautious: “We cannot view this as a victory for us because the Treaty has not been abandoned. Nor can we view it as a defeat for its proponents—merely a temporary setback.”
Indeed, it is likely that some form of ATT will be reintroduced at the next UN session, and it is possible that a substantial number of states will agree to controls. Whatever the precise outlines of the final ATT, there are some broader lessons here:
- States remain key players in transnational advocacy networks. Focusing on the NGOs, as much of the academic literature does, is too narrow a perspective.
- NGOs and civil society networks nonetheless influence states, especially democratic states. But they probably do so more through everyday lobbying at home, than by efforts in UN hallways or in some kind of transnational normative space.
- International civil society, just like domestic civil society, is ideologically diverse and conflictive. Conservative groups are powerful there, as activists in the trenches well know. It is by no means the exclusive preserve of progressive groups, notwithstanding scholars’ focus on them.
- As a result, zombie policy and failed policy are far more common than policy successes—although, as the gun control case shows, one network’s failure is usually another’s triumph. As scholars, we can learn a great deal by dissecting the corpses and living-dead that strew policy battlefields. By contrast, to focus only on the relatively few policies that stagger, battered and bruised, off the field (typically to face further attacks in ongoing policy wars) is misleading.