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"The real negotiations, of course, go on behind closed doors..."

5th Jul 2012

Martin Horwood at the UN

This is a guest blog by Martin Horwood, Liberal Democrat MP for Cheltenham and co-chair of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party committee on international affairs. 

Find him on twitter: @MartinChelt

I once asked a British diplomat how things were going at a UN conference. "Very well," he enthused, "it hasn't collapsed." That comment came back to me this week as I watched the shenanigans at the UN's New York headquarters as negotiators from around the world gathered to seal a strong and comprehensive arms treaty. 

Frantic calls and closed doors

The first two days, which I was attending alongside Labour MP Kerry McCarthy at the invitation of Oxfam, was supposed to be a showcase for key foreign ministers and delegations to begin their set-piece 'high level' speeches. The real negotiations, of course, go on behind closed doors between delegations where bracketed texts are argued over and frantic calls are made to and from national capitals. 

But the opening 'high level' segment sets the tone and brings out the big issues: should small arms, parts and ammunition form part of the treaty? Should the language of the treaty not just encourage but unambiguously impose binding commitments? Should criteria be included that prevent the transfer of arms when there is a high risk of human rights abuse, or of unreasonable funds being diverted away from sustainable development? The answer to all these questions should be yes. 

Our policy

That's not just Oxfam policy, I'm proud to say it's British government policy and the coalition's minister Alistair Burt would have said as much yesterday if he'd had the chance. But he didn't because nearly the entire first two days were lost in a frustrating wrangle over the proper representation of the Palestinian delegation. At times, the whole treaty process seemed to be at risk.

The time wasn't wholly wasted. Briefed and shepherded by industrious Oxfam lobbyists and their colleagues from Amnesty and Saferworld, Kerry and I spoke to UK delegates, lobbied others, tweeted, made calls home to colleagues in the UK and met with parliamentarians from around the world. And we helped the Control Arms coalition out with a dramatic bit of PR (stopping short of getting into body bags ourselves). 

Sensitive seating issues

The details of the arguments hardly matter now but they touched on sensitive issues such as Palestinian statehood and recognition at the UN, and whether or not Israel and the US would feel able to stay in the room if Palestine got equal representation. Bizarrely, the dispute even drew in the Vatican which also has ambivalent status at the UN. 

But the talks' genial Argentinian chair, ambassador Moritan, charmed and cajoled everyone into line, re-arranged the chairs (literally!) and finally got proceedings underway on Tuesday night. The high-level speeches were opened by Norway, Australia and Japan. Mr Nakano from Japan summed it up in "a few simple yet crucial words: clarity, objectivity, strength and transparency."  The treaty, he said, "should have the broadest possible terms." 

Happy 4th of July!

Then, after this brief opening, it was all adjourned for the 4th of July holiday. Moritan had time to issue his initial chair's paper and encouraged delegates to spend Independence Day reading it instead of going to the beach! We all applauded him and his colleagues for getting started at all. 

The arms treaty talks are going well - they haven't collapsed. Let's hope that over the next month, much higher ambitions than that are realised.