The nations that have ratified the controversial Arms Trade Treaty, which seeks to regulate the international sale of conventional arms, concluded their first meeting last week in Cancun.
One order of business at the four-day meeting was to pick the location for the Arms Trade Treaty’s headquarters – its secretariat.
And when the time to choose came, the Europeans refused to vote for the only non-European contender.
Worse, out of all the options available the secretariat went to Geneva, the global headquarters of disarmament and gun control.
The Arms Trade Treaty is supposed to be about promoting transparency in the international arms trade. It shows how committed everyone in Cancun was to transparency that the important decisions were made by secret ballot — or even without a vote at all.
There were three contenders to host the Arms Trade Treaty’s secretariat: Geneva, Switzerland, Vienna, Austria, or Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago (in the Caribbean).
Hosting the Arms Trade Treaty’s secretariat means jobs. It also means important visitors spending money along with prestige.
Geneva and Vienna already have plenty of all of those. Trinidad doesn’t, so it campaigned hard for the secretariat. It even looked like it was going to win.
After the first round of voting, it had the support of 32 nations and only needed to pick up another two votes to win a majority of the 67 nations in the room.
But in that first round, Geneva had 21 votes, and Vienna had 14.
So Vienna dropped out, and all of its support went to Geneva, which gave the Swiss a winning total of 35.
In an open vote, Trinidad would likely have won.
But its support was soft, and was shielded by the secrecy of the ballot, so in the end it faded.
The Europeans stuck together, and picked up just enough other votes – perhaps from Australia and Japan – to yank Arms Trade Treaty secretariat away from Trinidad. (Imagine Charlie Brown having the football taken away suddenly while he kicks at air).
The Arms Trade Treaty is supposed to be based on international cooperation and was pitched to get away from the voting by regional bloc that distorts the U.N.
But in the end, Europe called the shots. If this was the nineteenth century, we’d call it imperialism. Now it’s just paternalism.
I don’t think we should hand out offices like candy to every nation that wants one. But this wasn’t a big office – six people. And unlike Switzerland, Trinidad has a real problem with illicit arms trafficking. There’s no reason to think Trinidad couldn’t have handled hosting the office.
Why didn’t they win? I was in the room in Cancun, and I asked.
What I heard, again and again, was that, if the Arms Trade Treaty went to Trinidad, it would become a regional organization. And why was that?
Because no Europeans wanted to work there.
Europe needed the support of nations like Trinidad to make the treaty a reality. But in the end, they didn’t want to take the treaty outside Europe by forcing Europeans to actually live in Trinidad.
Dedication to stopping the illicit arms trade only goes so far, apparently.
So now the Arms Trade Treaty will be headquartered in Geneva, and likely in the U.N.’s offices there. For the U.S., that’s the worst possible outcome, because Geneva’s the center of the U.N.’s disarmament programs, and the center of the effort to promote gun control.
Putting the Arms Trade Treaty in Geneva is like dropping a bacteria into a friendly petri dish.
If you wanted to send the message that the Arms Trade Treaty was about encouraging the rest of the world to own its problems, Trinidad was the place to put it. If you wanted to send the message that the Arms Trade Treaty is a European, U.N., and disarmament institution, Geneva was the right headquarters.
And Geneva won. Supposedly, putting the Arms Trade Treaty in Trinidad would have made it into a regional institution. Well, it’s a regional institution now. And that region is called Europe.