If you want to learn about hypocrisy, the United Nations is the place to go for a master class. Virtually every nation at this month’s negotiating conference on the Arms Trade Treaty says it wants a treaty to prevent arms transfers that facilitate gross violations of human rights. But irresponsible arms transfers, it would seem, are always the fault of the other guy. In a room full of the other guy, that makes for a lot of lies. With the conference now into its fourth and final week, it can’t end soon enough.
The American media hasn’t served the public well when it comes to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). Three years after the Obama administration reversed course and signed on to the process, and more than a decade after it kicked off, far too many commentators (including, regrettably, a lot of conservatives) think the U.S. just changed its position on a mythical entity called the Small Arms Treaty. There’s no doubt that small arms and light weapons are the main target of the treaty, but it’s bigger than that. If it gets done, it will likely cover everything from bullets to battleships, with consequences for U.S. foreign policy and economic interest that are difficult to reckon, but which will only grow over time.
The result of the media’s laser-like focus on something that doesn’t exist means that in the U.S., the talk is all about the Second Amendment. It should be about the entire treaty: There’s enough in it to annoy everyone. Still, there’s virtue in the focus, even if it’s distorted. For a long time, the NGOs and their left-wing academic acolytes that back the treaty (like Harold Koh, legal transnationalist, gun-control supporter, and State Department legal adviser) indulged in a lot of loose talk about the failings of the Second Amendment, the need to clamp down on gun ownership, and the non-existence of the right of personal self-defense. These bursts of honesty aren’t as common now, but I doubt the treaty supporters have changed their mind: They’ve just sharpened up their act.
Still, once in a while, the U.N. lets the curtain slip. Just before the ATT conference opened, the U.N. Office of Disarmament Affairs sent out a paper arguing that while the treaty “does not aim to impede or interfere with . . . lawful ownership” it nonetheless needs to regulate the arms trade in ways that “minimize the risk of misuse of legally owned weapons.” That hints at the game plan: Don’t attack the Second Amendment, just make it harder for Americans to exercise their freedoms in practice. When asked about this, a U.N. spokesman described the distribution of this paper as a mistake. Indeed.
It’s a sign of the times that, like the Cluster Munitions Convention and the Land Mines Convention before it, the ATT has been driven by the so-called NGO community, which tends to lump the U.S. in with China and Russia, or even to view the U.S. as the worst villain of the lot. The quote of the day for Wednesday in the ATT Monitor, published every day at the conference by an NGO coalition, was from Widney Brown, of Amnesty International, who claims that “what we’re seeing” is “the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany” who are “making a profit by having arms transfers to governments or armed groups . . . to attack civilians.” Well, at least they’re right about Russia.
As with the Second Amendment, treaty proponents would have more credibility if they could dump their instinct to blame America first. But it’s in their blood: When China spoke yesterday and demanded that the ATT respect the right of non-interference in internal affairs (which means that all of the treaty’s human-rights standards would have no effect at all), the response of a pro-treaty NGO was to describe China’s approach as “encouraging.” In reality, what China is trying to do is to gut the treaty. By contrast, the U.S., represented in an effective statement by assistant secretary of state Tom Countryman, was dismissed as one of the “usual suspects” and lumped in with Cuba.
The best — the very best — that can be said of the ATT is that it represents an effort at global norm-setting. But given the fact that Koh’s transnationalist philosophy rests on the belief that the way to effect change inside the U.S. is to support the creation of global norms that will infiltrate the U.S. legal system, the best is still extremely bad. In the end, the ATT is like a law banning crime: If it was going to work, it would not be necessary. Inevitably, because the ATT is being drafted through the U.N., it is going to give the world’s criminal regimes a gigantic payoff: It will declare, in a legally-binding treaty, that their right to buy, sell, and transfer weapons is inherent in their national sovereignty.
For democracies, that’s completely appropriate. For dictatorships, it’s not. But the U.N. does not differentiate between them, and as currently constituted, it cannot differentiate. In practice, the dictatorships will take this concession and ignore the supposedly reciprocal “norm” part of the bargain: that they should stop shooting their own people and supporting terrorists. All the effort being put into drafting a “bulletproof” treaty — yes, that’s the NGO slogan — is effort wasted. You don’t control crime by drafting a better definition of murder: You get it by putting cops on the beat.
But when the U.S. does that, it catches heat for violating those mythical norms. As Eli Lake reported on Tuesday, the U.N. arms embargo on Somalia is being violated by no fewer than twelve nations, including the U.S. The U.S. violations apparently consist of not notifying the U.N. of the fact that it is training and aiding local Somali forces in their fight against al-Shabaab, the Somalia affiliate of al-Qaeda. The head of the U.N. agency monitoring the embargo claimed that “we are trying to establish a norm of compliance with the sanctions regime on Somalia. We can’t do that if members of the U.N. Security Council themselves are not compliant.” But since eleven other nations are intervening, it’s obvious that there is no norm and no compliance. The only thing that will happen if the U.S. backs off is that the other interventions will continue, and al-Shabaab will stand a better chance of winning.
If the nations of the world wanted higher standards on their arms imports and exports, they could have them today. If they wanted to respect U.N. Security Council sanctions and embargos, they could do so today. But they don’t, and they don’t. In spite of the complexities of drafting a text that satisfies everyone’s hypocrisy, the July conference may end up producing a treaty. But it won’t matter to the people of Syria or Somalia — never mind Iran or North Korea. And it won’t stop the NGOs from blaming the U.S. and, sooner or later, demanding yet another treaty. The only thing it will do is give Harold Koh a bit more to chew on, and add another layer of legal complexity to U.S. commercial interests and foreign and security policy. At the U.N., they call that a good day’s work.