Shortly before 4:00am last Saturday morning, the two week long Third Review Conference (RevCon3) on the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat, and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (PoA) finally came to end.
Entering into the meeting several critical issues were on the agenda, none of which was more significant than attempts to include ammunition into the fold of the PoA. Getting ammunition into the PoA has been at the top of the anti-firearms agenda since the PoA’s inception in 2001, as it opens the door for calls to mark, trace, limit and require global register of its users. To understand this, you must recognize that everything at the U.N. must be viewed not in the present, but in the future, and just like the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) it is never about what is in the document when it is initially adopted, but what that language will allow it to become. Ammunition was the real issue at RevCon3, as including it in the PoA would mark an even more significant step forward in the anti-firearm agenda of the U.N. than the adoption of the ATT.
It is for this reason that the United States’ policy has always been to object to attempts to include ammunition, and why this meeting, more so than any other on the PoA in the past, was so critical. Review conferences provide a forum for enacting change, and while RevCon3 was the third time such a review had taken place, it was the first time a united front had been assembled to push for ammunition’s inclusion. Regrettably, even with a strong U.S. delegation staying true to the original red lines established by former U.S. Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs John Bolton, nothing could have been done to stop the final outcome.
For the United States, trouble began during the first week of the conference. While the meeting started with the U.S. position receiving support from roughly half a dozen nations, the tide began to shift as the President of the Conference, French Ambassador Jean-Claude Brunet, emerged from the shadows of supposed impartiality to openly encourage the anti-firearms agenda represented by the majority in the room.
The critical turning point occurred mid-week, following statements from anti-gun group Civil Society, when the supposedly neutral President stopped the meeting and left his podium under the purported purpose of thanking those from Civil Society for their attendance. But instead of thanking everyone he pushed past the pro-firearm groups to have his picture taken with only those representatives supporting his shared anti-firearm agenda, a picture he proudly posted to his official Twitter account.
Brunet was sending a message, I am on your side and will do what I can to help. This message was clear and repeated throughout the remainder of the meeting, with his official Twitter account retweeting the messages of the anti-firearm groups in attendance and even carrying his own messages of support, including a picture celebrating wearing orange against "gun violence" and publicizing his closed meeting with the groups. Had his actions been limited to Twitter they might have been easier to swallow, but instead they carried onto the floor and began to impact and influence the course of the meeting. Brunet was supporting their calls to include ammunition in the PoA, and he was going to do whatever he could to help them achieve that goal.
As the body worked through five draft outcome documents, it was clear that the objections being noted on the floor were not being reflected in the progressive drafts. By the time the meeting had advanced to draft three, explicit calls to exclude ammunition from half a dozen countries, including the United States, had failed to be reflected.
Picking up on the President’s unwillingness to adhere to the objections from the floor, a coordinated effort focused on the most outspoken of the ammunition opponents, the United States, began to take hold. Challenges that should have been directed at all those who opposed the inclusion of ammunition instead became directed attacks, and while others remained in opposition it became far too easy for them to go silent and allow the United States to become the punching bag.
Round after round the onslaught continued, with the United States defending its position countless times. But the United States would not bend. At no point was this more clear then when the delegation took the floor to make three short, succinct points; ammunition was specifically not a part of the PoA when it was adopted in 2001, there has never been consensus on ammunition in any subsequent meeting of the PoA, and, as far as the United States was concerned, there never will be. As bold and direct as this was, the two paragraphs in every draft outcome document pushing for its inclusion remained, and it was clear the fight was going to go the distance.
By the second to last day Brunet and his cohorts were beginning to panic. The United States had not budged on the issue and was showing no signs that it would. This was not a delegation operating under the marching orders of our past administration, but instead a firm and solid team holding line.
Attempting to use the clock to his advantage, Brunet took the meeting late into the night on Thursday, hoping exhaustion might encourage compromise. But by 11:00pm he finally called the meeting, providing him with just enough time to strategize with his minions, and by Friday, the last day of the meeting, a plan was in place.
Working alongside Ghana and over 60 other countries pushing for the inclusion of ammunition, and utilizing the German delegation to work the floor to garner support, a coordinated attack was launched. Ammunition would be mentioned, requiring the United States to object, at which time the President would call for a break. During the break, proposals for alternate language would be quietly negotiated throughout the room, and then the meeting would reconvene for open discussions on the new language. Every time the result would be the same; no compromise. But this was expected. Brunet was trying to wear out the United States.
As the circus continued, by around 2:00am frustration started to set in with the President. Brunet had made the United States out to be a villain, the only country holding up consensus on the document and preventing everyone from going home, but the only way to end it was for the U.S. to call for a vote, which the United States was holding out on. In an effort to expedite the process he attempted to pass a motion by bringing the gavel down at almost the exact moment he finished speaking. The meeting had now gone from bad to ugly, and the United States was not having any of it.
In the U.N., it is never looked upon fondly to be the one to break consensus, after all, delegates are trained to compromise, but knowing the United States would not back down from this issue allowed Brunet to use it to his advantage. Finally, the United States made the call for the vote, and Brunet and his staff could implement their plan.
Up for vote were two paragraphs. The first, and less controversial of the two, called from the regulation of surplus ammunition stockpiles. The second, and far more significant, acknowledged States apply the PoA and other, undefined “relevant international standards” to ammunition. Again, a seemingly innocuous statement, but one that opens the door to full incorporation of ammunition into the PoA and its associated International Tracing Instrument, providing justification for later calls to globally regulate ammunition through such requirements as marking, tracing, stockpile limitations and registration.
Even before the votes were cast, it was clear the United States would not win, but it was a matter of principle. Majority rule does not apply to a consensus document, and the United States had to break consensus to keep ammunition out.
The results of the vote read like something out of the Human Rights Council (before our withdrawal); the United States and Israel on one side, 63 third world and Latin-American countries on the other, and 28 who supported our position but abstained nonetheless.
On to the second paragraph, or what would better between described as the second act of Brunet’s circus, but not before a two hour strategy session. When the meeting resumed, and before the vote could be cast, a motion was made and Brunet’s gavel was struck. No time for discussion, no opportunity to object. In what was clearly a coordinated effort, the original language on ammunition was reinserted into the document and passed at almost the exact moment the reading of it finished, forcing the vote to now be on language even more pervasive on the issue than that with which the U.S. had called to a vote. In other words, Brunet had got the ammunition language he wanted in, knowing full well that the voting results would be the same.
As the clock inched towards 3:00am the votes were cast and the results were are almost identical as the first. The United States and Israel on one side, 62 on the other, and 29 abstentions. Ammunition was in the final draft. All that was left now was for the remainder of the document to be adopted and the meeting to adjourn, but the show was not over. The circus had an encore.
In the push to get ammunition in the outcome document, a lingering issue with Syria remained. Syria had objected to the inclusion of references to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, and specifically any in excess of target 16.4 since day one. The SDG’s are a collection of 17 global goals encompassing 169 targets the U.N. established in 2015 in order to promote their agenda of sustainable development, ranging from gender equality to significantly reducing illicit arms flows. They are used to push agendas far outside the scope of specific meetings.
Regrettably, the hour was late and the room was exhausted, so when voting was finally opened most were half asleep or too busy celebrating their “win” on ammunition to take note. Even Syria itself failed to object, but that was not the end of it for them.
Syria continued to express their issues with the document, noting that it could not be adopted because there was no consensus. But in a bizarre twist, they failed to express their own objection to it or call for a final vote. When all was said and done, Madagascar took the floor, called for a vote, and the final draft outcome document was adopted, albeit with the U.S. reinforcing its objection to the two paragraphs including ammunition.
What we were left with as the hour approached 4:00am and the meeting came to a close was a very dangerous document and even worse precedent having been set. The requirement for consensus had been set aside, and a document containing references to ammunition was adopted; a document that will form the backbone of future calls by anti-gun proponents to regulate and restrict ammunition globally.
While there are others out there reporting on this meeting, a lot of what they take issue with in the outcome document is simply the reassertion of language contained in the PoA. Furthermore, they have selectively excluded any limiting language included, such as that contained in the introductory language to each section. Make no mistake, ammunition was the real issue at RevCon3. They would have also recognized that the United States’ objection to ammunition resulted in a document that does not conform to the PoA’s consensus requirement, and for this we sincerely applaud their efforts. The attacks they faced were ugly and while they held firm and kept true to their red lines, nothing more could have been done to stop the U.N.’s anti-gun agenda from moving forward short of withdrawing from another U.N. farce incapable of adhering its own requirements.