Susan Waltz reflects on United Nations General Assembly international Arms Trade Treaty

May 8, 2013

This April, the United Nations General Assembly finalized the text of an international Arms Trade Treaty designed to staunch the flow of weapons to countries where they're likely to fuel human rights abuses. Ford School Professor Susan Waltz, who has been deeply engaged in efforts to develop an Arms Trade Treaty for the past 16 years, reflects on the treaty's origins and what will be required before it's recognized as international law.

As the President of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias had seen terrible violence in Central America–in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama–and recognized that many of these conflicts were exacerbated by an influx of weapons that weren't produced locally. So 16 years ago, he convened a small group of Nobel Peace Laureates to discuss a shared vision: "a world where weapons no longer flowed freely across borders, fueling conflict and claiming countless lives."

At the time, Ford School Professor Susan Waltz was serving as the international chair of the Nobel Prize-winning organization, Amnesty International. As such, she was among those who met with Arias to discuss the devastating impact of irresponsible arms transfers on developing nations and draft a formal code of conduct, outlining standards for the ethical transfer of arms across international borders. "Indiscriminate weapons sales foster political instability and human rights violations, prolong violent conflicts, and weaken diplomatic efforts to resolve differences peacefully," the code explained. "Our children urgently need schools and health centers, not machine guns and fighter planes. Our children also need to be protected from violence. The dictators of this world, not the poor, clamor for arms."

Several months later, Waltz joined a larger group of Nobel Peace Laureates, including the Dalai Lama and Elie Wiesel, to urge world leaders to voluntarily restrict the sale of arms to states where they might fuel human rights abuses. But while both the Code of Conduct and appeal from Nobel Peace Laureates helped draw attention to the problem of small arms proliferation, neither had the force of international law, says Waltz. As a result, weapons continued to pour into countries like Colombia, Darfur, Sierra Leone, and Sri Lanka, where they were used to carry out appalling human rights abuses.

Formulating and negotiating the text of a legally-binding treaty is no simple matter, but in 2003 Amnesty International and Oxfam took on the challenge. Waltz helped map the early strategy through her work with Amnesty International, and has been involved in efforts to explain and promote the treaty ever since. Then in 2006, the efforts passed an important milestone as the United Nations agreed to launch an international arms trade treaty negotiation process with member-states. Last summer, after six years of United Nations efforts and encouragement from a receptive U.S. administration, it seemed likely that the formal negotiations would culminate in unanimous endorsement of the treaty text. At the eleventh hour, those hopes were dashed when a phone call with instructions from the White House reversed the U.S. stance, which abruptly stalled the treaty's passage. "There were plenty of dispiriting moments on this journey, " says Waltz, "but that was one of the worst."

Waltz and others committed to the treaty tried to understand the apparent shift in the U.S. position. Their best guess? Poor timing, public pressure, and misinformation. "At the opening of the July negotiations, fifty-one Senators signed a letter to the White House opposing the treaty," says Waltz. That letter, drafted by the National Rifle Association, implied that the treaty threatened 'the right of Americans to keep and bear arms'—and it arrived just 100 days before the Presidential election.

To rebut the NRA's claim, Waltz set to work with other members of Amnesty International, including Rebecca Farrar, who co-chairs the American Bar Association's committee on human rights, and Nate Smith, a Ford School master's of public policy student. Together, they drafted a letter emphasizing the importance of robust human rights provisions, and putting to rest the misleading claim that a treaty would impinge on the Second Amendment right to bear arms. They circulated the letter within the legal community and ultimately gathered nearly 500 signatures from prominent attorneys and international law professors across the country, including several with terms of service in the State Department and Department of Defense. That letter was then hand-delivered to senior members of the Obama Administration, including key staff at the National Security Council and the State Department.

In addition to the letter from legal professionals, letters from Nobel Peace Laureates, celebrities, retired generals, and faith community leaders were delivered to the White House, and when United Nations negotiations reconvened in this spring, the U.S. played a more supportive role. On April 2, over objections from Iran, North Korea, and Syria, the U.S. representative and 153 of the United Nations' 196 member-states voted to approve the treaty text, which stipulates that governments can't knowingly authorize the sale or transfer of weapons to countries where they're likely to be used for genocide, crimes against humanity, attacks against civilians, and other grave war crimes.

For Waltz, this victory is a clear demonstration of the importance of public engagement. "It was public pressure that convinced the White House to pull its support last summer, and it was public pressure that pushed back in this round." Still, although Waltz is thankful for the support the treaty has received, and optimistic about its impact, she knows that the work isn't quite done.

"Although the treaty language has been finalized by the United Nations, it's technically 'asleep' until 50 countries sign and ratify it," Waltz explains. Whether the United States will be among them remains to be seen. The United States hasn't ratified several other international treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Landmine Ban Treaty, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and more. Still, although U.S. ratification would require 67 Senate votes, says Waltz, "the main thing will be for Obama to sign the treaty, and for other countries to ratify it in sufficient numbers to be recognized as international public law."

With or without U.S. support, the Arms Trade Treaty is likely to be implemented. Thankfully, the absence of U.S. ratification hasn't historically been enough to impede the development or implementation of international human rights law, notes Waltz. Professor Robert Axelrod, a colleague of Waltz's and a highly regarded expert in the field of international security, explains that with the passage of this treaty, "the world, and especially the citizens of failed states and conflict-ridden countries, will be just a little safer."