Why the U.N.’s Arms Trade Treaty Won’t Work

Ted Bromund /

The U.N. wants to negotiate an Arms Trade Treaty. The Heritage Foundation recently published a lengthy study of this proposal. It found that the Treaty, if brought into being as currently projected, will be used not to restrict the access that dictators and terrorists have to conventional arms, but to reduce the ability of democracies like Israel to defend their people against terrorism.

This week brought further evidence of the U.N.’s impending failure. First came the announcement of a major arms deal between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. The size of the deal is staggering: Russia has given Venezuela a $2.2 billion line of credit. According to the Economist, this deal is about one quarter the size – to take one comparison – of all of Britain’s arms sales in 2008.

And Venezuela’s got quite the shopping list: 92 T-72 tanks, plus a lot more sophisticated hardware. What would the U.N.’s projected treaty do about this transaction between an authoritarian and repressive Russia and a dictatorial Venezuela? Nothing at all. Indeed, the treaty would give the deal a pat on the back, because it explicitly states that all nations, even dictatorships, have “the right…to manufacture, import, export, transfer and retain conventional arms.”

So if this treaty would allow Venezuela to import all the arms it wants, what use is it? One of the not-so-hidden aims of its backers is to stop fellow democracies from selling arms to Israel. Sometimes, this aim comes out in code: take, for instance, Iran’s claim that “the major problem of the developing countries” rests in the culpability of “certain major exporters,” i.e. “certain Western countries.” But the NGOs backing the treaty are less circumspect. Take, for instance, the remarks of Rebecca Peters, director of the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), on the 2007-2008 Gaza conflict:

If combatants [Israel and Hamas] are violating international humanitarian law, then states supplying them with weapons are knowingly assisting these violations and must bear some responsibility. An Arms Trade Treaty would prohibit such arms transfers

Note how Peters equates Israel and Hamas, and then stigmatizes both Israel and any state that supplies Israel with the weapons it needs to defend itself from terrorists as the targets of the U.N.’s treaty.

Of course, the U.S. itself is one of Israel’s most important suppliers, and thus the biggest target of these NGOs. But Britain sells to Israel too, and these sales have been a frequent target of British activists. This week has brought a further development. On Thursday, Britain’s Trades Union Congress, the umbrella organization of trade unions in Britain, voted in favor of wide-ranging sanctions against Israel that included a ban on importing goods produced in some Israeli settlements, divestment from some companies, and an end to arms trading with Israel.

As always, Iran’s culpability in supplying Hamas with its weaponry counted for nothing in this shameful vote. If the U.N. gets its way with its treaty, we can expect a lot more of these votes, and a lot more pressure being exerted on their own governments by the self-nominated, self-righteous leaders of civil society, all of them willfully blind to Israel’s right of self-defense against the aggressions of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran.

The problem is not the absence of an arms trade treaty. It is, as the Economist points out in its latest survey of the arms trade in Africa, that “Borders are porous. Corruption eases the flow. Arms dealers can readily buy forged licenses and paperwork from officials.” In other words, the problem is that there are too many authoritarian, dictatorial, malevolent, and incompetent governments in the world. These are the same governments that are negotiating the U.N.’s treaty, and which will have the responsibility of putting it into effect. And that is why the treaty is a fool’s errand.