House Notes with Cheltenham MP Martin Horwood
I ONCE asked a British diplomat how a UN conference was going. "Very well," he enthused, "it hasn't collapsed."
I recalled that comment this week as talks began at the United Nations' New York headquarters to hammer out an international treaty on the arms trade.
Countless lives have been lost, especially in developing countries, because of poor monitoring and lax controls over the international arms business.
Bananas are more heavily regulated than guns and missiles.
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A 10-year campaign has finally convinced most governments and responsible defence companies that more control is needed.
Along with one opposition MP, I was in New York as a guest of my old employer Oxfam, both of us there to lobby delegates and do what we could to support a strong and comprehensive treaty.
The early days were earmarked for set-piece speeches by key foreign ministers and delegations. The real negotiations, of course, go on behind closed doors.
But this opening 'high level' segment helps bring out the big issues: Should small arms, parts and ammunition be included? Should the language of the treaty unambiguously impose binding commitments? Should the treaty 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. That's not just my opinion. I'm proud to say it's all British government policy and the coalition's minister Alistair Burt would have said as much in New York if he'd had the chance.
But nearly the entire first two days were lost in a frustrating wrangle over Palestinian representation. At times, the whole treaty process seemed in jeopardy.
The dispute touched on sensitive issues such as the recognition of Palestinian statehood at the UN. Critical participants Israel and the US wouldn't stay if Palestine did get equal representation.
Bizarrely, the dispute even drew in the Vatican, which also has ambivalent status at the UN. But the talks' genial Argentinean chair charmed and cajoled everyone into line, re-arranged the chairs (literally!) and finally got proceedings underway.
UN diplomacy sometimes gets a bad press but I was very impressed by the determination of the professional diplomats to get everyone to calm down and talk.
After all, lives depended on it.
The arms treaty talks are going well – they haven't collapsed. Let's hope that over coming weeks, much higher ambitions are realised.