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Diplomacy in Action

On-the-Record Conference Call With Thomas Countryman, Head of the U.S. Delegation to the Arms Trade Treaty

Thomas M. Countryman
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation
United Nations
New York City
March 28, 2013


MR. COOPER: Good evening, guys. Thanks for joining us at this late hour. Obviously, we were hoping to do this a lot earlier, as you saw from the multiple notices that went out. I have with me Tom Countryman. He is Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation at the Department of State. He is also our head of delegation here at the Arms Trade Treaty Conference. He’ll begin with a few opening remarks, and then we’ll turn it over to your questions. 

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Thank you, Kurtis, and good evening, everybody. The United States regrets that it was not possible today to reach consensus at this conference on an Arms Trade Treaty. Such a treaty would promote global security, it would advance important humanitarian objectives, and it would affirm the legitimacy of the international trade in conventional arms. Over two weeks of hard negotiations we reached a text that was meaningful, that was implementable, a text that did not touch in any way upon the Constitutional rights of American citizens, a text that the United States could support. We look forward to this text being adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in the very near future. 

Thank you, and I’m happy to answer questions. 

OPERATOR: Thank you. For questions at this time, please press *1 on your touchtone phone. You’ll hear a tone indicating you’ve been placed in queue, and you can remove yourself from the queue at any time by pressing the # key. Again, any questions, please press *1. And for our first question we’ll go to the line of Jonathan Wachtel with Fox News. Please go ahead. 

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you very much for the briefing, Mr. Countryman. The Iranian ambassador said that he will, in fact, vote against the resolution should it come to the General Assembly. What’s your position on that, please? 

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: We expect a vote in the General Assembly perhaps as early as next week. The United States will vote in favor. We think an overwhelming majority of states will vote in favor. I’m happy to vote the opposite direction of such states as Iran, North Korea, and Syria on this text. 

OPERATOR: Thank you, and we’ll to our next question to the line of Neil MacFarquhar with the New York Times. Please go ahead. 

QUESTION: Hi, Mr. Secretary. Thanks for the briefing. Two things. One, why do you think those three countries specifically rejected the treaty tonight? And (b) although there is an overwhelming number of countries supporting it, there are also some objections named tonight by big countries like Russia and India, so I’m wondering if you anticipate any boulders on the route to approval in the General Assembly. 

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: I don’t want to speculate on the exact reasons that the three delegations – Iran, Syria, North Korea – gave. They’ve made their statements. This treaty is supported by the overwhelming majority of states who affirm the principle of the United Nations. These three states have suffered at various times from sanctions imposed by the United Nations for their unwillingness to live up to the principles of the UN Charter, and I think their isolation from the rest of the international community speaks for itself in terms of their respect for the United Nations and for a transparent arms trade. 

I believe there will be other nations besides these three that may vote against or abstain on a vote in the General Assembly. I don’t want to speculate on who else they might be, but I am certain that an overwhelming majority of states will vote in favor. 

OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll now go to the line of Colum Lynch – please go ahead – with the Washington Post

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. Two quick things. One is my recollection is the U.S. initially last year had insisted that any decision be made by consensus, and I wonder why the U.S. decided that it was okay to move beyond that principle. And also, our Russian was quite outspoken about – in opposition to the Mexican proposal, didn’t speak to the Kenyan proposal. But are you concerned that among those who may vote against would be a major arms exporter, and what impact do you think that that would have on the treaty if you had major players who weren’t party to this or who weren’t – who didn’t support it? 

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Well, first, we believe in the principle of consensus and we insisted upon it in establishing this conference. It’s important to the United States in the defense of our interests to insist on consensus, but every state in this process has always been conscious of the fact that if consensus is not reached in this process that there are other ways to adopt this treaty, including via vote of the General Assembly. And that alternative has served to focus the minds of all the states here on obtaining not a lowest common denominator treaty but actually an effective one, one that would gain the support of the majority. 

So I don’t see any inconsistency. We wanted consensus; we didn’t get it today. Regardless of who blocked consensus, we always knew that this could go to the General Assembly. Certainly it is the desire of the vast majority of states to have all of the major importing states and exporting states support this treaty and ultimately sign and adhere to it. That remains our hope as well. 

OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll now go to the line of Andre Viollaz with AFP. 

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Countryman. What impact do you think this treaty would have on the world trade if it’s applied and what impact would it have on the American industry, on American sales? 

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: First, the effect on world trade and world violence is difficult to measure, but I do not expect it would be immediate. I think over time as more states take action not only to have more effective controls on their own legal exports but also, as this treaty calls for, take more effective action against black market arms brokers and cooperate against the diversion of weapons, I think it will contribute to a reduction of violence. That’s certainly the motivation of the overwhelming support among African nations for this treaty. 

In terms of the effect on the American industry, I believe it will be positive in that currently the United States already has the highest standard in the world for regulating the export of conventional arms. This treaty will bring much of the rest of the world not up to the American standards but much closer to the American standards. And in that sense, I believe it levels the playing field and gives American manufacturers a better competitive position in the world. 

OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll now go to the line of Julian Pecquet with The Hill. And your line is open. Go ahead, please. 

QUESTION: Sorry about that. I don’t usually cover the UN so this may be a technical question, but what does it take for this to get to the General Assembly now? The Secretary General said he was all in favor of action. You all are in favor of action. So is this a done deal; it’s going to happen next week? And what do we lose by going the General Assembly route versus consensus? 

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Well both good questions. There will be a request from several delegations to take a vote on this, or to be more precise, to consider this text when the president of the conference, Ambassador Woolcott of Australia, who’s done a fantastic job, when he presents his report on this conference to the General Assembly on Tuesday, April 2nd. So it will be on the agenda that day. I’m not certain if there will be a vote or not. 

In terms of what we lost by not having full consensus, certainly we would like as many states in the world to join this treaty. That’s how the effectiveness of the treaty is maximized that more states sign it and more states actually implement the standards. We regret any state that chooses not to join and not to meet these standards. But the difference between doing this at consensus and doing it at the General Assembly means that a strong treaty that has the overwhelming support of the world can’t in the end be blocked by a few who fundamentally disagree with the purpose of the treaty. 

OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll now go to the line of Lou Charbonneau with Reuters. Please go ahead. 

QUESTION: Hi, I was wondering if you think – I’m looking down the road a little bit – the fact that Iran, North Korea, and Syria were the countries that blocked consensus could actually make this – make it a selling point for those in the United States who don’t like the idea of this treaty, supporters of the NRA, Republicans who have spoken out against the treaty because there was this Senate resolution last weekend, this amendment in the Senate that indicated a slight majority against having the treaty. 

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: I don’t really do domestic politics. I have seen criticism of the fact that the United States would even sit in the same room with Syria, Iran, and the DPRK to discuss this topic. All I can say is that for myself, I would much rather be on the opposite side of Syria, Iran, and DPRK than join them in criticism of this treaty. 

OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll now go to the line of Mark Goldberg with UN Dispatch. Please go ahead. 

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this call. I just have a quick question. Do you have any sense of when the United States might actually sign this treaty? You indicated that they, of course, will vote for it in the General Assembly, but the actual signing of the treaty, do you have a sense of when that might occur? 

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: That’s a good question. Signature is a separate step. For any treaty the United States carefully studies it. It’s looked at from all angles by many different agencies, and any statements of clarification about how we interpret the treaty or how we will implement it are prepared before the President is asked to give his signature. That takes, even for a treaty simpler than this one, usually a few months. I’m reluctant to give any specific timeframe. I can only say that as with any other treaty, it will get a careful review by every relevant agency of the U.S. Government before it goes to the President for signature. 

OPERATOR: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. We do have time for one more question. We’ll go to the line of Evelyn Leopold, an independent journalist. Please go ahead. 

QUESTION: Yes, greetings. Thank you for this briefing. Do you see any danger of a country such as India, which had some firm objections, wanting to reopen the text when it goes to the GA? 

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: I think that’s theoretically possible but very difficult to do in practice. Again, it’s the vast majority of countries, including the United States, wants to vote on this text, and I expect that that is what will happen in the General Assembly next week. 

QUESTION: You think it’ll be a two-thirds or a majority, or we don’t know yet? 

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: I’d hate to predict a number, but it will be a substantial majority. 

MR. COOPER: We can take one more call if you like. 

OPERATOR: Okay, thank you. And we’ll now go to the line of Lalit Jha with PTI. Please go ahead. 

QUESTION: Yeah, hi, thank you for doing this call. The same question on India. You know India has its own concerns. If you want, I can repeat it to you again, but you know it very well. How do you address India’s concern? India is one of the largest importer of arms and it also is sufferer of non-state actors. 

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Well, in terms of India’s concerns as a major arms importer, I’d first put it in this context, that the United States and India have an extremely strong bilateral relationship. It is a multidimensional strategic partnership that includes solid cooperation on security matters including in defense trade. And we recognize India’s legitimate interest in providing for its national defense. 

My own opinion is that this treaty in no way threatens the security of supply for India. It is – this treaty should make it harder for states that are serious abusers of human rights, that use weapons against their own citizens, that are aggressive towards their neighbors, that support terrorism, should make it harder for those states and those groups to get weapons. 

India is not in any of those categories. So while I appreciate the concern that has been expressed very clearly by India’s representatives here, my own view is that this treaty will not be harmful to India’s security and certainly cannot in any way harm the very strong bilateral relationship between India and the United States. 

OPERATOR: Thank you. We do have time for an additional question. We’ll go to the line of Colum Lynch with the Washington Post. Please go ahead. 

QUESTION: Yeah, hi. One other thing. I mean, it’s certainly interesting the sort of procedural issue of consensus, the U.S. has really fought to ensure that consensus is the only way to negotiate agreements on budgets. Here you have a situation where there’s a different approach. What about the Mexican proposal? What did the U.S. think of the Mexican proposal? You signed onto the Kenyan proposal which was pushing for a vote in the GA, but the Mexicans were looking at something different, the notion of that there wasn’t agreed definition of consensus and that it should be agreed in any case. I was a little confused by it. But what did the U.S. think of that? 

ASSISTANT SECRETARY COUNTRYMAN: Good question. What Mexico hoped to achieve was to get final approval of this text tonight rather than drag it out any further. And one of the arguments that they made was that there is no common definition of consensus understood within the UN system. A couple of nations strongly disagreed with that statement. The U.S. view is that consensus is a well-understood concept, that we did not achieve consensus tonight, and that it is not only consistent with our views but absolutely understandable and expected that the next step after a failure to reach consensus is to take this to the General Assembly as the proper forum to act. I think, again, as I said earlier, every country in the room had that same expectation. 

OPERATOR: And thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. That does complete our conference for this evening. Thank you for your participation and for using AT&T Executive Teleconference Service. Have a good evening. 


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