UNITED NATIONS – A little more than a week after accusing Iran of supplying arms for Syria's bloody crackdown on democracy-minded rebels, the UN has given Tehran a key seat at negotiations for a global arms treaty.
The stunning appointment by member states attending the UN Conference of the Arms Trade Treaty in New York came last week, and is just the latest example of the world body appointing rogue and repressive regimes to leadership roles. The 15-nation committee to which Iran was appointed hopes to guide what could eventually become the first legally binding global treaty aimed at regulating the international trade of conventional arms.
Critics say asking Iran to help craft a treaty aimed at stopping arms proliferation to terrorist groups and rogue states makes a mockery of the talks. Just two weeks ago, the UN Security Council accused Tehran of shipping arms to Syria, and Iran is also suspected of hiding illegal nuclear weapons facilities from international watchdogs.
“Right after a UN Security Council report found Iran guilty of illegally transferring guns and bombs to Syria, which is now murdering thousands of its own people, it defies logic, morality and common sense for the UN to elect this same regime to a global post in the regulation of arms transfers,” UN Watch Executive Director Hillel Neuer told FoxNews.com.
Talks are taking place throughout the month, with Argentina serving as president and the other 14 nations, including the U.S., Iran, China and Russia, as deputies, or vice presidents. The treaty would regulate conventional arms and not weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear, chemical or biological arms.
Any treaty would have to be ratified by the Senate in order to be enforceable against U.S. citizens or corporations. The talks have already raised concerns in the U.S. that an international pact could curb Americans' Second Amendment rights. The conference was backed by the Obama administration, in a reversal of the Bush administration, which had opposed a UN General Assembly resolution launching the treaty process in 2006.
Iran gloated about its appointment, with its news agencies IRNA and ISNA boasting about the Islamic Republic’s appointment as a “deputy” to the treaty talks, and the Tehran Times touting that Iran’s mission to the UN will be “assisting the president” of the conference in conducting business.
At the meeting in which Iran was named to the committee, no nations -- including the U.S. -- objected. But the U.S. State Department scrambled to play down the significance of the appointment, arguing there are safeguards protecting against any treaty not in the U.S. interest from being passed.
“Obviously we oppose [Iran’s appointment], but it’s a symbolic position with little impact on a month-long negotiation that must be decided by consensus,” said one senior State Department official, who asked not to be identified because a more formal response was still being prepared.
“It will ultimately face the approval of the United States regardless of which country holds one of 14 powerless vice president positions. At that point, we will be looking for an arms trade treaty that makes the legitimate global weapons trade safer by bringing the rest of the world’s arms trade regulations up to the high [current] U.S. standard.”
Just last year, Ambassador Joseph Torsella, the Obama administration's U.S. Representative to UN for Management and Reform, told the Council on Foreign Relations the U.S. would no longer go along with appointments that send the wrong message.
“We’re going to assert a common-sense principle across the UN: If a member state is under Security Council sanction for weapons proliferation or massive human-rights abuses, it should be barred, plain and simple, from leadership roles like chairmanships in UN bodies," Torsella said. "Abusers of international law or norms should not be the public face of the UN.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addressed the arms trade conference on the same day as Iran’s appointment, but failed to mention it.
Instead he focused the need for an arms trade treaty to advance in tandem with efforts to control the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.
“Nuclear issues capture headlines, but conventional arms are killing people every day,” Ban told the UN’s 193 member states.
Significantly, Iran is also defying the UN over pursuit of its nuclear program, which the West believes is aimed at developing a nuclear weapon.
Conference spokesman Ewen Buchanan said the choice of Iran was solely that of the Asia-Pacific group, and stressed the conference secretariat was “not in charge of this member-state process.”
The conference is taking place after the Obama administration moved in 2009 to support holding the event – reversing the position of the Bush administration, which opposed a UN General Assembly resolution launching the treaty process in 2006.
The U.S. has long listed Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism, and both it and Israel accuse the Islamic Republic of providing support to Mideast terror groups that seek Israel’s destruction.
Meanwhile, incongruous appointments take place with alarming frequency at the UN, and include Syria’s appointment to a UNESCO human rights committee last fall, and Saudi Arabia’s earlier appointment to the board of the women’s rights agency UN Women – despite laws in the Arab kingdom that don’t even allow women to drive.
Syria, meanwhile, is quietly competing to become a member of the UN Human Rights Council – which the UN bills as the world’s foremost arbiter of human rights violations.
“The UN’s choice of Iran is exactly why we fear that Syria's declared bid for a UN Human Rights Council seat is not impossible,” said Neuer, whose organization also uncovered the Syrian candidacy.
Steven Edwards is a freelance journalist based at the United Nations.