On October 30, the United States voted with the majority in the General Assembly to support U.N.-sponsored negotiations to regulate the conventional arms trade. The vote was 153-1, with the pariah state of Zimbabwe the lone hold out. More significantly, some of the world’s more ethically challenged arms traders – the states of China, Russia, Iran, Syria, India, Pakistan, and Cuba – abstained in the vote.
U.S. support for the negotiations reversed the policy of the Bush Administration, but the U.S. agreed to participate only if the negotiations were conducted on the basis of consensus, which the Obama administration claims will “ensure that all countries can be held to standards that will actually improve the global situation.”
The vote is not, in practice, as immediately significant as its supporters claim. The Open-Ended Working Group on the treaty that was already meeting in New York – and in which the U.S. was already participating – has been transformed into a Preparatory Committee for the crowing U.N. conference on the treaty. But that conference was always supposed to be held in 2012: the latest resolution simply confirms that goal and date.
In one way, the latest resolution is an improvement over past versions. Unlike the 2008 resolution, it acknowledges “national constitutional protections on private ownership,” and it omits expansive language requiring signatories to have the “highest possible standards” in order to keep guns away from all “criminal activity.”
As we pointed out in August, if the treaty contained language of this sort it could conflict with the Second Amendment. This is a point that the Senate will have to watch carefully as the negotiations proceed: it seems clear that these changes were made only to bring the U.S. on board, and the Obama administration’s demand for consensus will serve as a way for other countries to put pressure on the U.S. to abandon this new language.
But in conception, the latest resolution is no better than the rest. It reiterates the national ‘right to buy,’ which promises to make it easier for dictatorships to acquire arms and to transfer them to terrorist groups. It contains a series of vague standards for the arms trade that will in practice be used to discriminate against the U.S. and Israel. And it fails to come to grips with the fact that the U.N. Security Council already has the power to impose arms embargoes, which are widely violated in practice. A new treaty will only give the violators a shield to hide behind.
A story that broke yesterday illustrates some of these problems. The Eurasia Daily Monitor reports that France is “moving fast to sell at least one Mistral-class helicopter carrier to Russia, possibly for deployment in the Black Sea.” The Russian Navy wants this vessel because “In the conflict in August last year [against Georgia], a ship like that would have allowed [Russia’s] Black Sea Fleet to accomplish its mission in 40 minutes, not 26 hours.” Russian possession of a French carrier would facilitate any future adventures it wished to carry out in the Black Sea. And France wants to sell, because it would “provide an economic stimulus for the crisis-hit STX France shipyard.”
And yet France supports the arms trade treaty, stating that “the treaty should restrict the supply of arms and ammunition in unstable areas; respect human rights and preserve peace, security and regional stability.” What they do not state is how these aims will be advanced by selling a helicopter carrier to Russia. This is the kind of blatant hypocrisy that dominates among the advocates of the treaty: support in words, but carry on as before in deeds. It appears that many states support the treaty not because it will limit arms sales, but because, by creating the ‘right to buy,’ it will actually facilitate them.
The U.S. has put itself in a bad position. Its demand for consensus will be used to encourage the U.S. itself to lower its standards for the sake of concluding an agreement. Any standards that are agreed will bind the U.S. but not the world’s irresponsible sellers, who do not even live up to their existing obligations. And the more the U.S. presses for enforcement of these standards, the more it will create multilateral institutions that will focus obsessively on criticizing it, instead of the world’s wrong-doers. The latest U.N. vote is another step down an unreal road.