The Truth About the Arms Trade Treaty
Ted Bromund /
Supporters of the U.N.’s Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) are turning up the heat ahead of another push next month to finalize the treaty. Oxfam America is second to none in its advocacy of this bad treaty, and on Wednesday released a paper accusing opponents of the treaty of mounting a “campaign of lies and deliberate distortions” in order to stop a treaty that stands for “truth and justice” and “will prevent the irresponsible sale, gift, or lease of weapons and ammunition across borders.” The Heritage Foundation was itself singled out, and so we’d like to respond.
First, of course, we’d like to thank Oxfam for recognizing the impact our work has had. As the author of the paper cited, I am doubly obliged. But we strongly disagree with Oxfam’s charge and think the organization itself is engaging in serious mischaracterizations of what this proposed treaty would do and not do.
Heritage was not the only group attacked. One of the most unattractive things about the treaty’s supporters is that they just cannot fathom that anyone might actually disagree with them in good faith. To them, the only explanation possible is that the treaty opponents are liars. So Oxfam also spends a good deal of time going after House Resolution 814, introduced on November 16, 2012, by Representative Mike Kelly (R–PA).
The Resolution notes that the ATT “risks imposing costly regulatory burdens onUnited Statesbusinesses,” a claim that Oxfam calls a “lie.” But Oxfam mischaracterizes the ATT as applying only to “the official export and import of weapons by nations,” implying that it will not affect the private sector. This is incorrect: The treaty will apply to all weapons transfers, not just those by national forces.
Moreover, to take just one example, Article 7.1 of the draft treaty states that theU.S., as an importer, “shall take measures to ensure that appropriate and relevant information is provided, upon request, in accordance with its national laws, to the exporting State Party to assist the exporting State Party in its national assessment.”
In other words, if a U.S. firm sought to import firearms parts and components from Belgium, it would be up to Belgium to decide what information it needed from the U.S., and ultimately from the U.S. firm, in order to allow the export. It is therefore impossible to say, as Oxfam does, that the ATT “will not require any additional regulatory burdens or reporting.” The information that is to be provided is decided by the exporting country. This obviously creates exactly what the Resolution says: a risk of increased reporting burdens. The reference toU.S.“national laws” does not offer much protection, as the relevant laws and regulations can change.
Oxfam goes on to argue that it is a “distortion” to assert, as the Resolution does, that the ATT “places free democracies and totalitarian regimes on a basis of equality.” Amazingly, it then immediately asserts that the treaty imposes the same standards on everyone, “regardless of their political systems.” Exactly right: It treats democracies and dictatorships the same, just as the Resolution says it does.
It is astonishing to see Oxfam standing up in defense of the “principle of sovereign equality” to assert the right of tyrannies to import guns with which to oppress their people, but that is exactly what they are doing. Yes, customary international law says that dictatorships have the right to buy all the weapons they want, but turning that into a treaty right recognized by the entire world is not a step forward. It is a gigantic step backwards.
This is where Oxfam goes after my own work—specifically, a Heritage paper published last summer, which argues that “the ATT will effectively bind only the democracies that accept it.” Oxfam regards this as just more “distortions.” It claims that:
Like any other treaty, the ATT will bind all countries that adopt it and will send a strong message to those that don’t. Countries that violate the treaty law will face international pressure and condemnation. Elevating the rest of the world to something close to US standards is key to defining appropriate behavior to which bad actors can be held accountable. While the USalready has strict controls on arms transfers, there is no international law making arms trafficking to human rights abusers or war criminals illegal. The ATT will for the first time hold countries that facilitate abusive actions through arms sales accountable.
How, exactly, will the ATT hold nations accountable? Are they accountable just because they signed a piece of paper? It is widely acknowledged by treaty supporters that U.N. Security Council arms embargoes are regularly violated. Why will the ATT be any different?
Law, including treaty law, matters to the law-abiding, not to the lawless. The troubling arms transfers in the world occur because nations do not want to stop them, or are too weak or incompetent to do so. A treaty will not change that. Just yesterday, for example, Yemen seized a ship full of Iranian missiles, rockets, and other weapons, which was evidently part of Iran’s continuing effort to undermine—in defiance of a U.N. Security Council resolution—Yemen’s political transition.
How, precisely, would an ATT hold Iran“accountable” for this? An ATT will certainly bind the U.S.—if we sign and ratify it—but it is not going to bind Iranor the many other bad actors in the world. Even the Obama Administration, which backs the treaty, agrees that the ATT “will not fundamentally change the nature of international politics nor can it by itself bring an end to the festering international and civil conflicts around the world.”
The treaty supporters are looking for a miracle pill. They believe—or they say they believe— that they have found one in the ATT. But no such pill exists. And that is one reason why I am opposed to the ATT: It will not work the way its fervent supporters claim it will. When they realize that, they are going to be disappointed, start blaming theU.S., and demanding an even more restrictive treaty. This is a rigged game, and the only way to win a rigged game is to refuse to play. Terming that a lie and a distortion is nothing more than name-calling.