‘Dating Diplomats’: Diary of an arms trade lobbyist

By Alberto Estevez, AI’s Lobbying Coordinator on the Arms Trade Treaty

In a vast, windowless conference hall, scores of people in suits sit behind row upon row of desks. Their manner is deadly serious – and rightly so, as they’re part of a a debate that could save millions of lives. Here at the UN in New York the discussion is about an Arms Trade Treaty which will be agreed in fewer than four months. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, injured, raped and forced to flee from their homes as a result of the irresponsible arms trade. The people sitting at the desks are officials from nearly every nation in the world, each proudly sitting behind a wooden plaque bearing their country’s name. This is the final furlong of a long campaign to secure agreement on an international Arms Trade Treaty that protects human rights. I’ve been involved in Amnesty International’s campaign to control arms since the very beginning – more than a decade. It’s been a long journey, but the end we want is in sight. There are currently tighter controls on trading bananas than bullets. Nothing is as loaded with politics as the control of weapons. The talks this week – the Fourth UN Preparatory Meeting on the Arms Trade Treaty, or “PrepComm” to those on the inside – are the penultimate stage before final negotiations on the Arms Trade Treaty in July. I’m here with a team of about 20 Amnesty International experts on the arms trade to lobby governments for a strong treaty. The true international spirit of our movement is on display, with friends from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East all part of the team. This is what makes Amnesty so unique and its voice so strong. Lobbying is often seen as a dirty word – a dark art associated with large companies up to no good. This week it is a force for positive change. Each member of the team is armed with a list of countries that we need to speak to. Every country is on our list – from the powerful to the small – as each will get one vote in July. The week is a rare opportunity when nearly all 193 UN Member States are in one room to talk about the treaty. Our team sits cramped together in a row of chairs at the back of the room (unlike the diplomats we don’t get desks) along with people from other NGOs looking to seek out an official from one country or another. We listen attentively to the official statements being made, with our headsets on to hear the interpreters, analyzing every word. What’s the country’s position on the treaty? Are they moving in the direction we want? The focus of the debate this week is on the rules of the game for the final talks in July. A different word or emphasis here or there can make all the difference to the final outcome. The devil is in the detail. Every so often, an official says something that reminds you just why we are here. Like the representative from the The real lobbying takes places not in the room but outside, in the corridors and the café a short walk from the conference room, which is frequented by diplomats. Lobbying is much like dating. You identify the official you want to talk to, say a quick hello, hope that leads to a coffee and then if that goes well a longer meeting or perhaps dinner. We want to convey Amnesty International’s position to all the officials. A “Golden Rule” is central to what we are calling for in any agreement. This rule would require all states to conduct rigorous case-by-case risk assessments of proposed international arms transfers, to prevent those transfers from going ahead where there is a substantial risk they would be used to commit or facilitate serious human rights violations. We can broadly put countries into four groups based on the Golden Rule – those who are generally supportive, those championing it, those who are skeptical and those who are actively blocking its inclusion in the treaty. So we need to find out the common ground and the differences. We need to maintain a good relationship even with the countries that don’t currently support the ‘Golden Rule’. Can we persuade them on our key demands? We’re doing our best to. It’s been a tough week. At times an official speaks and your heart sinks. But I am reminded of all the times throughout the campaign when we were told it wouldn’t go any further. Each time we pushed on through. The lobbying doesn’t stop when the officials leave on Friday. It’s only the start. And Amnesty’s 3 million supporters are the most powerful lobbyists of all.  If we keep up the pressure between now and July, we can secure a treaty that genuinely protects human rights.