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 regulate international 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.
Among the array of U.S. civil society and industry groups involved in the ATT process, the National Rifle Association has distinguished itself by issuing a decade-long stream of misinformation that has clouded Americans' understanding of the issues. It is a pattern of willful obfuscation that has defined the gun group's posture as an international actor since before plans for the talks were announced under the Bush Administration. Indeed, the rebirth of the NRA as a profitable organization following its brush with bankruptcy in the mid-90s tracks closely with the history of UN activity around the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons.
In the wake of the Cold War, the role of small arms in fueling conflicts around the world gained a new profile. The booming global trade in light weapons, embodied by the global gunrunner Viktor Bout, was understood as a key cause of numerous simmering humanitarian crises, particularly in Western Africa. When the UN began addressing the issue in the early 1990s through its Disarmament Commission, which convened a Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms, the gun lobbies of the world took notice. In 1993, representatives from the NRA joined their peers in mostly English-speaking gun-producing countries for an International Conference on Firearms Legislation. A few years later, the same groups founded the World Forum on the Future of Sport Shooting Activities, which acquired observer status for a series of regional UN workshops across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The NRA's representative on the UN circuit talks was Oregon attorney Thomas Mason, who has acted in that capacity ever since.
It was around the time of the World Forum's founding in 1996 that the NRA, under the relatively new and failing leadership of Wayne LaPierre, began recruiting members with warnings about "global gun grabbers."
It was cunning strategy. In a period of rising popular anti-UN sentiment on the right, the NRA saw the potential of fundraising off blue-helmet paranoia. In 1996, Tanya Metaksa, then-director of the NRA's lobbying arm, piggybacked off of Senator Jesse Helms' crusade to cut off U.S. funding for the UN to publicize growing UN interest in the global small arms trade, urging him to deny funds to any UN program related to "small arms used by the civilian population in the United States." Metaksa's gambit demonstrated the NRA's willingness and ability to use its position in domestic politics to create problems for the UN.
When the UN Small Arms panel published its 1997 report, the NRA was ready with a breathless fundraising letter hyping UN designs on the Second Amendment. "We are just two steps away from an international treaty that could cost you and your family your rights and your guns," wrote Metaksa in a direct-mail plea. "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?" At international conferences and at home, the NRA denounced UN efforts to stop weapons from flooding into regions of enormous human suffering and instability such as the Balkans and Western Africa, and even attacked governments like Japan that assisted poor countries in sending delegations to UN disarmament events. 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.
Knowing the NRA would mark the start of the ATT talks with a fusillade of scaremongering -- the NRA robo-calls began soon after Obama announced U.S. participation in 2009 -- the UN went out of its way to explain in the clearest of terms that the ATT did not concern the domestic gun laws of signatory nations. It was a running joke at the ATT talks that the UN's website for the conference seemed designed with the average NRA member in mind, anchored by a "Myths and Facts" section. The U.S. delegation, led by Thomas Countryman, also sought to head off NRA interference. "This treaty will regulate only the international trade in arms," Countryman said in his opening remarks. "Any attempt to include provisions in the treaty that would interfere with each state's sovereign control over the domestic possession, use, or movement of arms is clearly outside the scope of our mandate."
Despite this unambiguous language -- and despite last month's Senate passage of The Second Amendment Sovereignty Act, which prohibits the administration from spending money to use "the voice, vote, and influence of the United States, in connection with negotiations for a United Nations Arms Trade Treaty, to restrict in any way the rights of United States citizens under the second amendment to the Constitution of the United States" -- the chatter about global gun grabbing has dominated the limited amount of media coverage devoted to the talks, coverage that could otherwise be spent examining numerous legitimate political, technical, and humanitarian issues raised by the contentious negotiations.
The fact that the NRA and the conservative media have been able to dominate the narrative in the U.S. is a footnote to the decline of journalism in America. Longtime UN diplomats observe that it wasn't all that long ago that even regional newspapers had UN correspondents, and the networks would have covered a disarmament conference like the ATT, the first attempt by the world body at an arms treaty in over a decade. But there was hardly any press at Turtle Bay during the first two weeks of the talks. The only U.S. satellite truck that parked outside the UN building on the day the NRA addressed the conference belonged to Fox. NRA News sent a mobile crew that conducted its interviews nearby.
Even the NRA's veteran on the UN scene, Thomas Mason, regretted the diminished state of media coverage. "It takes five years to even begin figuring out how this place works," he said. "You need people who cover the UN full-time. These days, there are hardly any left."
After the NRA's Wayne LaPierre, few individuals have contributed more to the distortion of the ATT than Dick Morris, an influential and often fee-based vector for the latest conservative messages. Morris devoted a chapter to the ATT in his latest book, produced a video on the subject, and launched a petition drive rejecting U.S. participation. Together these efforts have made a public display of his confusion over the Constitution's Supremacy Clause and gave him the honor of being a rare point of agreement between Oxfam and the Heritage Foundation. Representatives from both groups were heard outside a UN conference hall dismissing Morris as fundamentally unserious.
Ted Bromund, who represents the Heritage Foundation and has earned grudging respect from treaty advocates for his textured and measured critique of the treaty, is among the very few conservatives writing about the ATT who refuses to call it a "gun grab." "It's not useful to turn it up to eleven, to start talking about black helicopters, as if this were a frontal attack on the Second Amendment, because it isn't," he said. "Before people address [the ATT] they should know what they're talking about, have some knowledge of international law, the UN, the processes at work."
Much of the right-wing media loudly disagrees. The Washington Times ran an editorial at the start of the conference entitled, "The U.N. is coming for your guns." A Breitbart.com blogger warned that we will soon be "looking down the barrel of international gun control." Regular contributor to Forbes.com Larry Bell wrote that the UN has a "gun-grab agenda" and that the ATT talks are "clearly setting the stage for full-scale gun confiscation." Such ideas have also gained a foothold in Canada, once a leading gun-control bogeyman of the NRA, where Sun Media newspapers and cable stations offer an alarmist version of the ATT in line with the negotiating position of the Conservative government of Stephen Harper.
As the mainline gun group in the United States, the NRA has set the tone on the right and deserves most of the blame. There are other groups even more extreme than the NRA, such as Alan Gottlieb's Second Amendment Foundation, but they lack the reach and influence to craft and sustain the global gun grab meme across such a broad swath among the public and in Congress. Yet when the New York Times' editorialized last week in support of the ATT, the paper declined to call out NRA mischief. It was an omission for which the NRA's UN hand was grateful. "I don't think they understand the issue, but the Times piece could have been worse," said Thomas Mason. "They could have bad-mouthed the NRA and made it personal."
For Mason, the ATT is personal in a literal sense. Over the course of his nearly 20 years working in the trenches on behalf of the gun lobby, he has developed friendships with leading figures across the spectrum of the debate. His warm interactions with pro-ATT diplomats and senior figures with Amnesty International offer a human-scale counterpoint to the public bombast of Wayne LaPierre, who is famous for storming out of UN settings as soon as he finishes speaking.
On the morning that civil society groups delivered their statements to the conference, the gun lobby spoke first, led by LaPierre. The NRA CEO reiterated his organization's strong opposition to unspecified (because imaginary) "anti-freedom policies that disregard American citizens' right to self-defense." As he did at last July's ATT preparatory meeting, he demanded the removal of civilian firearms and ammunition from the scope of the treaty. Wrapping up, he strangely informed the gathered that his demands were also those of the "hundreds of millions of Americans" he represents. Then, sandwiched between Chris Cox of the NRA-ILA and his bodyguard, LaPierre quickly exited the building. Outside, he was interviewed by a FoxNews.com reporter and chatted with the Fox News producer. When asked by Media Matters if he thought the talks would result in a successful treaty, LaPierre smiled broadly as if he could not care less. "We'll see!" he said.
The response to LaPierre's statement from pro-ATT forces was swift and brutal. As if years of frustration with the NRA had finally boiled over, Amnesty International's Adotei Akwei spoke for many on his side when he wrote in a statement, "The string of distortions, misrepresentations and outright lies spewed by the National Rifle Association today about the arms control treaty is simply breathtaking... These distortions only give credence to allegations that the NRA ... has another more troubling motive -- to protect the lucrative weapons industry that bankrolls the organization and benefits immensely from the current free-for-all in the global trade in weapons and ammunition."
Akwei's statement was perhaps written in haste, as it insinuated the U.S. gun industry would suffer as a result of other nations raising their standards to those already practiced in the U.S.
The following morning Maj. Gen. Roger R. Blunt (Ret.) touched on this in a column for the Hill, in which he decried "misinformation and distortions from the gun lobby... spread for fundraising purposes." Noting that the ATT seeks to raise the arms-trade standards of other countries to America's current practices, Blunt concluded: "The benefits of the treaty are clear. It will slow the flow of arms to those intent on killing our troops, make it harder for warlords to sow seeds of fear and instability, keep weapons out of the hands of terrorists, and have no impact on Second Amendment rights... What is not clear is how the NRA and their allies can risk undermining a treaty that would do all of that just to create a controversy that they can use to raise money."
The NRA's shameless dishonesty in the ATT process, as in American domestic politics, has served to confuse legitimate arguments worth having. Ted Bromund, of Heritage, is right to note that some of the ATT's most enthusiastic supporters have recently been caught engaging in the illegal import of weapons. Kenya, one of the treaty's biggest boosters in the UN, has been caught importing (with U.S. approval) T-72 tanks for its strategic buffer in South Sudan. This is just one example of the truism that states will continue to act in their perceived interests despite the writ of international law. If an ATT goes into effect, most states will likely define the terms of the treaty according to their judgments and interests. Arms sales have always been, and will likely remain, tools of foreign policy. And the lack of a strong enforcement mechanism raises the question of effectiveness.
But a global treaty that lacks a global army to enforce it can still exert a positive influence over time, with or without U.S. involvement. Here we approach the real motivations behind much conservative opposition to the ATT, beyond its use as a crude political cudgel in an election year, or its ability to shake the NRA dues tree and cause a spike in domestic gun sales, the organization's new bread and butter.
It is not a surprise that otherwise sophisticated philosophical enemies of the UN are willing to repeat the NRA line with gusto. John Bolton, for example, has as good a grasp of the limits of UN power as anyone, yet nonetheless has been saying things like, "there is no doubt... that the real agenda here is domestic firearms control."
Bolton and his ideological peers seem to oppose the very concept of international law and detest the idea of the UN playing a role in crafting "norms." This time it is an arms treaty; last time it was the Chamber of Commerce-supported Law of the Sea Treaty. They understand that the signing of an ATT, however watered down by consensus and however "aspirational", will nonetheless be something. It will also end a long drought at the UN's Office of Disarmament Affairs and perhaps revive a bit of faith in the idea of collective security. "We have not had a treaty success in a long time," said a diplomat with a Latin American delegation who requested anonymity. "We need this."
The right understands that despite their scorn, treaties like the ATT are how norms develop, slowly and by degrees.
"States think about how their decisions conform with the global system of laws and norms," says Scott Stedjan, a senior advisor on humanitarian issues to Oxfam. "States may ignore their obligations, of course, and no treaty is going to stop that. But that does not negate the fact that a treaty that contributes to a global system based on upholding human rights and humanitarian values is of value."
Even without U.S. participation, which thanks to the NRA could be its fate, the ATT may yet bear material benefits in guns unshipped and lives saved.
"By adopting laws, we won't end black market arms dealing, but it will make it more expensive, more risky," says Oxfam's Stedjan. "Over time, the loopholes will begin to close. What's more, requirements of international law and standards are powerful things in the hands of civil society. In countries with civil society freedom, the ATT will be a powerful tool."
If the dirty play of the gun lobby and their conservative allies blocks U.S. participation in an ATT, there is no shortage of examples of the world moving forward without Washington. The day after LaPierre delivered his angry statement against gun-grabby UN overreach, the International Criminal Court handed down a 14-year prison sentence, its first ever, to Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga, for mass child kidnapping and the use of child soldiers. For many around the world, the sentence is a hopeful sign that the ICC might yet play a role in the fight against using children in war. For the NRA, it is probably grist for a new robo-call campaign in development, warning Americans that the ICC is on the march, coming for their guns.