The start of the negotiations was stalled by a dispute over the status of the Palestinian delegation. The Egyptian delegation proposed that the Palestinians should be regarded as a UN member state for the purposes of the ATT diplomatic conference, with the support of many other Arab states. There was concern that, should the issue have gone to a vote, most states would abstain, the Arab states would win and Israel would walk out of the negotiations, followed by the US. Without the US in the room, the whole conference would be seen to be dead in the water. As someone who has dedicated a lot of time and energy to campaigning both for Palestinians’ rights and for a strong ATT, I watched in horror as news of this situation began to arrive in my inbox.
The Egyptian delegation does not want to see a strong ATT agreed, and I suspect that its motivations for raising this point of order had less to do with solidarity with the Palestinians and everything to do with disrupting the treaty process and appeasing a domestic political audience. Egypt is a significant importer and growing exporter of conventional arms, and its government knows that if a treaty was agreed which made it illegal to transfers arms where there was a clear risk of them facilitating serious violations of international humanitarian law or human rights law it could seriously inhibit its ability to import (given its own human rights record) and export to other states in the region (given theirs). After President Mubarak was overthrown, ATT supporters were disappointed (but not surprised) to note that the Egyptian position on the treaty did not change at all – the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces continues to be vehemently opposed. Furthermore, the negotiations began just a week after new Egyptian President Mohammad Mursi took office, and championing the Palestinian cause at the UN no doubt appeared to him a useful means of demonstrating a break from the Mubarak era and shoring up popular support. A happy confluence of interests, then, for two branches of Egypt’s government still uneasy in each other’s presence.
This is not to say that the Palestinians themselves were not a driving force behind the move. Palestinians have suffered a great deal from the poorly regulated global arms trade, bearing the brunt of the millions of dollars of arms transferred to the Israeli Government each year. However, the Palestinian Authority is no doubt highly sceptical about the prospects for achieving a treaty which would actually prevent the US, Europeans and others from providing arms that support the Israeli occupation of Palestine (and they’re probably right). Despite the recent bid for membership status and plan to seek non-member status, it is impossible to understate the level of faith Palestinians have in the UN to do anything to improve their circumstances, after many years of failed attempts. To most Palestinians, the suggestion that the UN might be about to put a stop to the decades-long flow of arms to Israel which has made it the largest military power in the region would be laughable.
The issue of the Palestinians' status at the ATT diplomatic conference appears to have been resolved through some kind of compromise, allowing the Palestinian delegation to attend some session and not others. However, the details of the deal that was struck have not been made public, and it is possible that the issue will raise its head again in the next few days, particularly if ATT sceptics do not like the way the negotiations are going.
Is it wrong for the Palestinians (or the Egyptians) to use – and potentially derail – the ATT conference in their pursuit of UN recognition? The issue is certainly not likely to be solved on the sidelines of the ATT negotiations, and it would be a shame if this treaty process which so many have worked so hard for for such a long time was undermined by the move. While it may help increase the pressure on UN member states to make progress on the Palestinian issue at the UN General Assembly in September, many of the states which the Palestinians would rely on for support are also keen advocates for the ATT, and the Palestinians risk alienating them if they’re not careful.
All of that said, Palestinians have been continually let down by the international community, and the UN in particular – its failure to enforce international law, failure to help facilitate a peace process in which the odds are not stacked in Israel’s favour, failure to help protect the most basic rights of Palestinians. Disrupting other, unrelated international processes in order to get their cause back on the agenda may not be the wisest move, but when all else appears to have failed, can we really blame them?