When the UN Arms Trade Treaty fails, what next?
Make no mistake; the Arms Trade Treaty will fail. And when it does, its advocates will look everywhere but the mirror to figure out why
The UN conference to negotiate the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) will start in just over a month. It’s no secret that I think the treaty is a very bad idea. But it’s going to happen, if not in July, then sometime, and if not through the UN, then outside of it. What interests me is what happens then.
There’s a fascinating disparity surrounding the ATT. If you talk to insiders—those thoroughly in favor of the treaty—they acknowledge that it’s far from a silver bullet. (Apologies for the pun, but if the ATT’s proponents are going to yammer on endlessly about the need for a bulletproof treaty, I’m going to grab all the verbal ammo I can.) The best case they make for it is that it will create a legal requirement for countries to have some sort of system for controlling arms imports and exports, and that the U.S., Britain, and a few other countries will be able to use that to put a bit of pressure on them now and then, in a way that will slowly raise standards.
I don’t accept that argument, but it’s at least a modest one. It’s not, though, the argument that the treaty’s public proponents advance. They say they believe that the treaty will actually work. Not in the limited kind of way the insiders claim for it, but that it will actually be – in the words of Kate Allen in the Guardian – “a decisive moment” that will “stem the flow of weapons and ammunition to rights abusing governments” and be a “binding, bulletproof,” (see what I mean?) “extraordinary opportunity to advance human rights.”
Moreover, while the treaty insiders talk a lot about the need to raise standards for the states that don’t have any, the public proponents put the blame very clearly on the U.S., Britain, France, China, and Russia. Now, China and Russia’s standards could use some improvement, no doubt. But they’re not the kind of nations that are going to be impressed by yet another toothless UN treaty, not when their markets and dictatorial buddies are at stake. There are two kinds of countries that might be affected by an ATT – the law-abiding ones, and the really weak ones. China and Russia are neither.
ATT proponents’ enthusiasm for working through the UN is remarkable, as is their desire to use it to clamp down on Security Council’s veto-holding Permanent Members. They should remember a fact of life about the UN: the veto exists as much to protect the UN as it does to protect the P5. The veto is like a circuit breaker. It prevents so much current from flowing through the UN system that it’s blown apart. The only kind of crisis that could do that is one that involves the fundamental interests of the great powers, which is why they got the veto. ATT advocates pose as the friends of the UN system, but they are in reality its deadliest enemies. They want it to do things it was not designed to do, things that would destroy the system they claim to be defending and promoting.
It won’t come to that over the ATT, if only because the treaty will make no practical difference to the world’s dictatorial and autocratic regimes. The reasons for that should be obvious. The treaty is going to state, clearly and explicitly, that the right to buy, sell, and transfer weapons is inherent in national sovereignty. Because all of the world’s dictatorial regimes are deemed to be sovereign members of the United Nations, those rights will apply in full to them. Therefore, when a nice, friendly British diplomat comes along, and tries to upbraid Russia for supplying weapons to Syria, the answer he will get from his Russian counterpart is obvious: we have the right to sell, Syria has the right to buy, and you have the right to get lost.
No treaty negotiated through the UN can hope to solve this problem, because any UN treaty will have to be agreed to by the nations that are the problem.
So what happens when the Treaty doesn’t work? You can bet that the ATT’s proponents aren’t going to accept that they were wrong. They’ll do three things. First, they’ll blame the U.S. (and Britain, but mostly the U.S.) for the Treaty’s failure. Second, they’ll argue – no matter who is actually doing the arms supplying, and to what conflict – that the U.S. and Britain are ‘setting a bad example’ by engaging in even the well-regulated sale of arms to fellow democracies. Third, they’ll assert that the treaty needs to be tightened up, and its review conferences will be an occasion for running battles between countries that are easily swayed by left-wing NGOs and British and American diplomats who don’t want to double down on failure. The insiders who ignore this, or think this pressure will amount to nothing, are kidding themselves.
According to Allen, an ATT is the next necessary step forward, after a year that has been a great and successful one for “international justice.” It just goes to show what a curious conception of success the ATT’s friends have.
Yes, the ICC issued arrest warrants for the Gaddafis – but it was NATO’s warplanes that brought down the regime, and Muammar’s life didn’t end in a courtroom. True, the Joseph Kony campaign went global – but he remains at large, and it is U.S. Special Forces who are helping to chase him down. Great, Ratko Mladic is in the dock – but he was caught as the result of a war fought by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Excellent, Charles Taylor has been convicted – but he was overthrown in part thanks to Anglo-American pressure, and even the deployment of the U.S. Marines. And definitely, Thomas Lubanga is a thug – but he’s a small fry, the trial was a procedural fiasco, and he lost control of Bunia, in the DRC, only because he was pushed out by the Ugandan Army.
The important thing isn’t that these murderers and thugs go on trial, or are convicted. The important thing is that they are no longer in power. And that’s what matters here: power. Absolutely none of these successes for “international justice” would have been achieved without the application of military power, and almost none of them would have been achieved without the United States and Britain.
Human rights abuses are not going to be ended by a treaty among all concerned: they are going to be ended (or limited, rather) by domestic change within the countries that abuse human rights, aided on occasion by the supporting use of force by the world’s genuine democracies. The ATT will make no contribution at all to that process. Unfortunately, when it fails, its advocates will look everywhere but the mirror to figure out why.
Ted Bromund is senior research fellow in The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, at the Washington-based think tank, The Heritage Foundation
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