The Corner

The U.N.’s Unique Species of Hypocrisy, Arms-Trafficking Edition

It would be a wearying task to catalog every kind of hypocrisy on display at this week’s meeting of the U.N.’s Programme of Action on Small Arms — the PoA, where the main issues I set out for the Corner yesterday continue to be a focus of discussion. But the main principal species of lies, evasions, and question-begging at Turtle Bay are worth recording, precisely because they are so dominant.

Most entertainingly, there is bare-faced hypocrisy. The dictator nations are especially good at this. On Tuesday, I listened to Venezuela’s intervention in a discussion on the tracing of firearms, which consisted of a sob story about how poor Venezuela — which, just for reference, still manages to produce about 2.35 million barrels of oil a day, in spite of its socialist incompetence — can’t afford equipment to trace modern firearms.

Admittedly, given the number of guns the Chavez regime provided to the FARC guerrillas in Colombia, there are a lot of firearms to trace, but the Venezuelan approach is to ignore that and to demand that the U.S. give it up-to-date tracing equipment. The basis for this demand appears to be that weapons-producing rich nations like the U.S. have a moral and legal responsibility to help corrupt and dictatorial regimes like Venezuela’s that have spent decades wasting their resources, subverting their neighbors, and oppressing their own people. Or something like that.

Less entertaining is question-begging hypocrisy. One of the major themes of this meeting of the PoA is promoting measures to secure stockpiles of small arms. Just today, the Small Arms Survey — a major Swiss NGO — released a report on the effects of regional arms trafficking by armed groups based in Libya, which are widely and reasonably believed to have armed Islamist groups in Mali, Nigeria, and elsewhere out of former Libyan-government stockpiles.

Now, Moammar Qaddafi was himself a major arms trafficker, so it’s not like Libya used to be all sweetness, light, and a force for regional stability. Good riddance to him. But the smuggling out of Libya today might be less indiscriminate if the Obama administration — with the enthusiastic support of the same sorts of human-rights NGOs that now bemoan the smuggling — hadn’t overthrown Qaddafi in 2011 and then walked away. Yet you’re not likely to catch anyone at the U.N. observing arguing that one major source of insecure arsenals and proliferation in North Africa is an Obama intervention that had no follow-through.

Lastly, and most commonly, there’s hidden-hand hypocrisy. At the U.N., illicit arms trafficking just somehow sort of happens. In theory, as Sarah Parker of the Survey put it at a side event today, the aim of PoA meetings is “to review national implementation.” But in practice, that’s impossible, because any honest effort to review implementation would involve calling out a lot of U.N. member states for lying, being incompetent, or actually trafficking arms, and that will never happen at the U.N. So you have the curious phenomenon that the PoA is, in practice, far more eager to add new commitments than it is to check on whether existing ones are being fulfilled.

You see hidden-hand hypocrisy most clearly when someone breaks the code — as today, for example, when an Interpol representative asserted that their systems would “show you some of the routes that nations are using to traffic arms into your country.” The certainty that U.N. member states do this is both completely obvious and, at the U.N., rarely mentioned. Or there was Belgium’s observation, which hung in the air, that the AK-47 used in the May attack at its Jewish Museum, which killed four people, was almost certainly smuggled in “from abroad,” i.e., from Syria.

But little cracks in the facade like that are the exception. Most of the time, that mysterious hidden hand gets the blame. And frankly, assessing whether or not U.N. members are complying with their PoA commitments — leaving aside the broader question of whether the PoA has any inherent merit — is close to impossible: there are too many commitments, and the world is just too big. So the U.N. moves on, blandly assuming the best, enabled by NGOs like the Survey that do know better but are too invested in the process to blow the whistle very hard. It’s just the way the U.N. works. Or at least the way it gets by.

— Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in Anglo-American relations with the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation.

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