Sitting in the back of the room as the UN’s member states negotiate the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is a disorientating experience. That’s partly because it’s not a negotiation as Americans understand the term: it’s a series of more or less unconnected national interventions on particular points of interest, while the actual drafting happens out of sight. It’s also because Iran and North Korea are treated with at least as much formal respect as the United States and South Korea. Before last summer’s ATT negotiations, I had naively expected that the North Korean diplomats, for example, would be just a touch embarrassed to be representing their regime, and that as a result they would try to fade into background. On the contrary–it’s the U.S. that intervenes as little as possible, while the totalitarians speak up loud, proud, and often.
But it’s mostly because of the sleep-inducing effect of UN-style rhetoric, which only a few nations have failed to master. Phrases like “colonial and alien domination” (meaning, of course, Israel and the United States), “right of resistance” (meaning Palestinian and Islamist terrorism), “balanced and objective criteria” (meaning that nothing should inconvenience human rights abusers), “open and inclusive negotiations” (meaning that the conference has to work entirely in plenary, because Iran and the other dictatorships do not want anything happening out of their sight), and the “disproportionate effect of armed violence on women, children, the elderly, and the disabled” (meaning that the speaker is very eager to sound progressive, either because they are Norway or because they are speaking on behalf of a Third World autocracy) roll off tongue after tongue.