The UN Arms Trade Treaty is a "bulletproof" license to sell

Britain should be cautious of backing a treaty that lacks a clear recognition that dictatorships should not have the same rights to participate in the arms trade as the world’s democracies

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Carl Fredrik Reutersward's 'Non Violence' sculpture outside the UN in New York
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Ted Bromund
On 21 December 2011 10:23

The UN Arms Trade Treaty sprang from an initiative by then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in September 2004. Impelled, perhaps, by the irony of being part of a Labour government that was presiding over wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the treaty Straw called for will likely be adopted in July 2012. Today, British NGOs are among the treaty’s most vociferous advocates, with Oxfam calling with monotonous regularity for a “bulletproof Arms Trade Treaty.”

In the US, the treaty is controversial primarily because it might affect rights protected under the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which are summed up in the phrase “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.” If the treaty gets as far as the Senate, Second Amendment concerns will likely scuttle it there.

The NGOs have mostly dealt with the Second Amendment issue by trying to wish it away. This is no surprise. What is more surprising is that the NGOs have not recognized the weaknesses at the heart of the treaty, weaknesses that have nothing to do with the Second Amendment.

The idea behind the treaty is that countries should be more discriminating when it comes to selling arms abroad and should try to keep guns out of the hands of terrorists, organized crime, and repressive dictatorships. Unfortunately, the treaty is not being negotiated just by the good guys. All the states that provide guns to terrorists, or are repressive dictatorships, are also in on drafting the treaty. And if the treaty is going to be adopted worldwide, it’s going to have to work for everyone, including the bad guys.  That’s the way the UN works.

That’s why the treaty has at its heart the explicit, legal recognition that all nations not under UN Security Council embargo—even the most repressive, incompetent, or criminal regimes—have the right to “manufacture, develop, acquire, import, export, transfer and retain conventional arms and related items and capabilities.”

So, yes: a treaty supposedly intended to control the arms trade is based on recognizing that everyone has the right to participate in it. How will that work? Well, in theory, the arms trade will henceforth be based on the treaty’s criteria, which will supposedly establish common international standards for arms imports and exports.

But those standards are numerous and vague. Moreover, the world’s nations do not want the treaty to control the arms trade, which they could do on their own if they cared to. The world’s nations want the treaty because it will recognize their right to buy and sell arms. That is not just my assessment: it was the assessment of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research in 2007.

But it gets better. Yes, the draft treaty supposedly imposes criteria on arms sales. But according to its own draft text, it is also supposed to be “objective and non-discriminatory.” What does that mean? It means that the treaty’s signatories are required to respect the right of all regimes to buy and sell arms, and not discriminate against anyone in implementing the treaty.

For example, when CARICOM, an organization of 15 Caribbean nations, recently endorsed the treaty, it demanded that the US lift its embargo of Cuba, on the grounds that a treaty would require all nations to be treated equally, and the US embargo is a violation of equal treatment. That may be popular in Europe, where the US embargo enjoys little support, but if the Cuban government has the right to buy arms on the world market, why should Syria not have the same right to buy arms from its willing suppliers in Russia?

The broader question is simple: how can a “bulletproof” treaty on the one hand require arms sellers to discriminate between good and bad regimes when supplying arms, and on the other hand demand that the treaty’s criteria not be applied in a discriminatory way? The answer is simple: this is not a “bulletproof” treaty. It is not even a serious one. In practice, the world’s bad actors will cite the treaty to justify selling arms anywhere they see fit, while the West’s activists will use it to try to curtail arms sales to democracies like Israel that they dislike.

Perhaps that’s precisely why the activists are so enthusiastic about the treaty. But anyone in Britain who’s not blindly committed to Oxfam’s “bulletproof” notions should think again about backing a treaty that starts by giving universal recognition to the legality of the arms trade, and that is not based on a clear recognition that dictatorships should not have the same rights to participate in this trade as the world’s democracies.

Ted Bromund is senior research fellow in The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, at The Heritage Foundation

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