The office of Representative Raul M. Grijalva (D–AZ) distributed a “Dear Colleagues” letter to House Republicans on March 1 that seeks to debunk what it describes as four “myths” about the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The truth is more complex than the letter allows. Taking the four “myths” in turn:
“Myth” #1: “The ATT will not limit domestic gun ownership or sales.… If the ATT is ratified, the US will be able to ensure that the weapons it exports are used responsibly.”
Fact: The U.S. does not need the ATT to have a responsible arms export policy, though it is impossible to “ensure” that U.S. arms will always be used responsibly. The question of the compatibility of the ATT and the Second Amendment is complex: See the series of blogs that I am publishing with my colleague John Malcolm.
“Myth” #2: “There will be no new domestic regulation under ATT.” In particular, the U.S. will not create a national firearms registry if the ATT is ratified.
Fact: The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the President have wide powers to control the import of firearms and defense items and could use their powers to enforce relevant treaty clauses through new domestic regulations.
“Myth” #3: “Export oversight will not change the way our manufacturing bases operate: ATT will simply enforce U.S. standards already in place.” The U.S. was partly responsible for human rights abuses in Bahrain, and “we cannot allow these incidents to repeat themselves.”
Fact: There is a contradiction in the claim that, while the ATT will not change existing U.S. standards, it will change existing U.S. standards that purportedly contributed to events in Bahrain. More broadly, Article 7(1) of the draft treaty requires importing nations to “ensure that appropriate and relevant information is provided…to the exporting State Party.” Thus, it is entirely possible that the treaty will lead the U.S. to gather more information from U.S. firms to supply to foreign nations that export parts and components for weapons to the U.S., and it is reasonable that Congress be concerned about the burden inherent in this.
“Myth” #4: “Under the ATT, arm [sic] exports will only be limited where there are human-rights or genocide concerns.” Thus, the ATT will not “harm the U.S.’s relationships with Taiwan and Israel by eliminating foreign aid.”
Fact: This is not a question of “eliminating” aid to Taiwan and Israel. But anyone who follows the news will be aware that Israel is regularly (if spuriously) accused of human rights violations. Under the ATT, these accusations could easily be cited as an excuse for restricting U.S. arms sales to Israel. As for Taiwan, interested readers can refer to the Issue Brief I wrote with my colleague Dean Cheng. The State Department itself has acknowledged that these concerns are legitimate, and again, Congress is right to be concerned about this.
The Dear Colleagues letter concludes with the argument that “[i]f this treaty is ratified, the only groups who will not receive U.S. arms are human-rights abusers and perpetrators of genocide.” The U.S. does not need to ratify the ATT to achieve this aim, and the ATT does not simply ban all defense exports to human rights abusers. More broadly, this claim ignores the fact that the U.S. sometimes has to support poor governments against even worse ones.
For example, the U.S. backed South Korea against North Korea in 1950, even though South Korea was not, at that time, a democracy. An absolute ban on the U.S. supply of arms to all but the pure would prevent the U.S. from making the most elementary and necessary choices and put us in the position of taking, in practice, the side of the most evil and aggressive regimes and terrorist movements in the world. If the ATT did what the letter claims, that would be yet another reason for Congress to be concerned about it.