The World Is Vulnerable -- UN Arms Trade Treaty Talks Fail, Again
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The NRA's shameless dishonesty in the ATT process, as in American domestic politics, has served to confuse legitimate arguments worth having. Ted Bromund, of Heritage, is right to note that some of the ATT's most enthusiastic supporters have recently been caught engaging in the illegal import of weapons. Kenya, one of the treaty's biggest boosters in the UN, has been caught importing (with U.S. approval) T-72 tanks for its strategic buffer in South Sudan. This is just one example of the truism that states will continue to act in their perceived interests despite the writ of international law. If an ATT goes into effect, most states will likely define the terms of the treaty according to their judgments and interests. Arms sales have always been, and will likely remain, tools of foreign policy. And the lack of a strong enforcement mechanism raises the question of effectiveness.
But a global treaty that lacks a global army to enforce it can still exert a positive influence over time, with or without U.S. involvement. Here we approach the real motivations behind much conservative opposition to the ATT, beyond its use as a crude political cudgel in an election year, or its ability to shake the NRA dues tree and cause a spike in domestic gun sales, the organization's new bread and butter.
It is not a surprise that otherwise sophisticated philosophical enemies of the UN are willing to repeat the NRA line with gusto. John Bolton, for example, has as good a grasp of the limits of UN power as anyone, yet nonetheless has been saying things like, "there is no doubt... that the real agenda here is domestic firearms control."
Bolton and his ideological peers seem to oppose the very concept of international law and detest the idea of the UN playing a role in crafting "norms." This time it is an arms treaty; last time it was the Chamber of Commerce-supported Law of the Sea Treaty. They understand that the signing of an ATT, however watered down by consensus and however "aspirational", will nonetheless be something. It will also end a long drought at the UN's Office of Disarmament Affairs and perhaps revive a bit of faith in the idea of collective security. "We have not had a treaty success in a long time," said a diplomat with a Latin American delegation who requested anonymity. "We need this."
The right understands that despite their scorn, treaties like the ATT are how norms develop, slowly and by degrees.
"States think about how their decisions conform with the global system of laws and norms," says Scott Stedjan, a senior advisor on humanitarian issues to Oxfam. "States may ignore their obligations, of course, and no treaty is going to stop that. But that does not negate the fact that a treaty that contributes to a global system based on upholding human rights and humanitarian values is of value."
Even without U.S. participation, which thanks to the NRA could be its fate, the ATT may yet bear material benefits in guns unshipped and lives saved.
"By adopting laws, we won't end black market arms dealing, but it will make it more expensive, more risky," says Oxfam's Stedjan. "Over time, the loopholes will begin to close. What's more, requirements of international law and standards are powerful things in the hands of civil society. In countries with civil society freedom, the ATT will be a powerful tool."
If the dirty play of the gun lobby and their conservative allies blocks U.S. participation in an ATT, there is no shortage of examples of the world moving forward without Washington. The day after LaPierre delivered his angry statement against gun-grabby UN overreach, the International Criminal Court handed down a 14-year prison sentence, its first ever, to Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga, for mass child kidnapping and the use of child soldiers. For many around the world, the sentence is a hopeful sign that the ICC might yet play a role in the fight against using children in war. For the NRA, it is probably grist for a new robo-call campaign in development, warning Americans that the ICC is on the march, coming for their guns.