Playing the game, working the room for a strong Arms Trade Treaty

By Frank Johansson, Director of Amnesty International Finland

An experienced diplomat once told me that multilateral diplomacy is a weird shadow theatre. Most of the time the lines uttered on stage in the official meetings are just signposts to what is really taking place outside the room or in the fringes.

Having been an Amnesty International lobbyist in the latest production of this spectacle – the negotiations for an Arms Trade Treaty taking place at the UN in New York this month – I have to agree.

Even if the diplomatic speak in the vast conference room – extremely polite and subtle words meaning the exact opposite of what is literally said – is interesting for a while, in the end it is tiresome.

If you really want to make a difference you need to ‘work the room.’

The key to playing this part in the show is to have good contacts in the government negotiating teams. With their help you can get a better sense of what is really going on.

If you see a government official walking around with an open laptop talking to other governments it is a good sign that they are negotiating the text for a joint proposal on part of the treaty.

In this instance, you just need to find the one diplomat you know well, who seems approachable, and nudge him or her for some clues. You can then share that information with your colleagues in the Amnesty team – who are simultaneously speaking to other government officials – and work to try to piece the puzzle together.

Last Thursday, when the deadline for proposing text on the types of arms to be covered by the treaty was approaching, you could see a frantic race around the room, like ants scurrying from desk to desk.

Since one of those doing most of the running was a friendly Nordic delegate, Amnesty’s team of experts had already had a chance to analyze and make suggestions on the draft document.

This meant that I could just follow the trail: see who was being approached and if it was somebody from a government on my list, I’d pounce and take them for a chat outside the room. If it was somebody my colleagues were working on, I’d give them the lead.

Of course timing is key: look away for a few seconds and you might have missed your chance.

It can’t all be one-sided. It is important to give if you want something in return. We at Amnesty are fortunate to have such a strong team of experts providing the team in the room with all the facts and strategy we need to be able to actually offer officials a lot in return.

It is the high quality of our analysis that helps us establish the contacts we need to do our work – the governments understand that we know our stuff and are therefore open to conversation.

Diplomacy in the modern communication age makes it possible to email comments to delegates whilst the meeting is already in session. Pieces of paper with vital nuggets of information are scanned and shared in an instant with colleagues and diplomats. We sometimes seem to be working in constant fast forward mode.

The information is not only shared with the Amnesty team here in New York but with our network of colleagues lobbying in capital cities all over the world.The Arms Trade Treaty discussions are now moving into their final crucial fortnight of intense negotiations.

I’m writing this on my last day in the room observing this process. I will pass the baton on to one of my Amnesty colleagues before heading back to Finland. Rest assured they are fully briefed with all the information and contacts gathered over the past two weeks. All the diplomats I’ve been working with have been told of the change.

I will be sad to go, because as the Liberian president and Nobel Peace laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said in her statement to the meeting, this is a once in a lifetime chance to make history. I’m extremely lucky to have been part of this important production.

I wish those who stay until the end the best of luck. Play the game, work the room. And when the final curtain falls we can get a strong Arms Trade Treaty that protects human rights.

Read more:

Effective Arms Trade Treaty? It’s all in the scope (Blog, 11 July 2012)

Arms control: UN urged to seize once in a lifetime opportunity (News story, 12 July 2012)

UN chief backs strong Arms Trade Treaty (News story, 3 July 2012)

Arms control and human rights (Campaign page)