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Executive Summary #2309 on International Organizations

August 21, 2009

Executive Summary: The U.N.'s Arms Trade Treaty: A Dangerous Multilateral Mistake in the Making

By and

On October 31, 2008, the U.N. General Assembly voted 145 to 2 with 18 abstentions for a resolution entitled "Towards an arms trade treaty: establishing common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms." The two nations voting against the resolution were the United States and Zimbabwe. The October resolution envisions a "legally binding treaty" that creates "common international standards" for "the import, export and transfer of conventional arms," including small arms and light weapons.

The U.S. should continue to oppose any treaty based on the October resolution. Although putatively intended as an arms control measure that would reduce conflicts and limit the ability of terrorists and organized crime to obtain weapons, the treaty contemplated by the resolution would in reality be a license to almost all states, no matter how irresponsible, to buy and sell arms. The projected treaty would endanger U.S. arms export control policy, clash with the Constitution, offer a dangerous justification for dictatorial rule, and make it illegal under international law for the U.S. to support freedom fighters abroad.

The "growing global consensus" rhetoric that the treaty's backers use to characterize its goals makes it unwise for the U.S. to ignore the campaign for the treaty. If the U.S. ignores it, the treaty will be drafted and adopted based on the October resolution. The treaty will then be established as another destructive precedent in multilateral arms control and a "norm" for sympathetic lawyers and judges in the U.S. to draw upon and thereby subvert U.S. sovereignty.

The U.S. should act now to clearly establish its opposition to the projected treaty and should work to bring other, more creditable states to its side.

What the U.S. Should Do. The United States needs to take a measured approach to the upcoming negotiations of the proposed arms trade treaty. While the U.S. should continue to participate in the New York-based working group, it should not allow this participation to be mistaken for acquiescence in or agreement with the discussions or any resulting treaty.

The U.S. should judge the acceptability of any treaty that emerges by the following tests and should refuse to sign any treaty that does not meet all of them:

  • Does the treaty recognize the legitimacy of nationally declared arms embargoes and, more broadly, avoid enshrining lowest-common-denominator standards?
  • Does the treaty contain an agreed definition of terrorism that differentiates between terrorism and armed rebellion against tyrannical and oppressive regimes that do not respect the inherent right of self-government?
  • Does the treaty clearly and unconditionally respect the rights of the private citizens of member states to keep and bear arms?
  • Does the treaty avoid establishing a right to buy and instead leave this question as a matter for customary international law?
  • Is membership in any monitoring body established by the treaty restricted to law-abiding states that have a strong and consistent record of controlling the transfer and sale of arms to terrorists and repressive regimes?
  • Do the terms of the treaty expressly state that it is not self-executing?
  • Do the terms of the treaty expressly exclude rights of individuals and private entities to sue to enforce the treaty, to assert rights under the treaty, or to use its provisions as a defense against prosecution?

The U.S. can and should seek to advance the control of the international import, export, and transfer of conventional weapons through means that are less dramatic but more effective than the projected U.N. treaty. To this end, the U.S. should:

  • Seek to use the largely inactive framework of the U.N. disarmament organization in Geneva as a good-offices organization in times of regional crisis to bring regional states together and to negotiate small, geographically limited treaties to address particular issues.
  • Seek to secure adoption of a U.N. Security Council resolution requiring all U.N. member states to have strong laws against internal diversions from government stockpiles to terrorists. The U.S. already has such laws and could work with other responsible states to supply technical and expert assistance to states that are genuinely interested in reducing potential terrorists' access to arms.
  • Work through suppliers groups--such as the member states of the Wassenaar Arrangement, the existing multilateral forum for export controls on conventional weapons and dual-use goods and technologies--to build up a body of knowledge and practice for use by all states that desire to improve their export and transit controls.
  • Draw on the Proliferation Security Initiative model to promote expanded international monitoring of the sale, purchase, and transfer of conventional arms.

Conclusion. The purported goal of the U.N. arms trade treaty is to keep guns out of the hands of terrorists and organized criminals and to reduce conflict. These are worthy endeavors and should have the support of the United States and its democratic allies around the world.

However, a treaty based on the October 2008 arms trade resolution will not achieve these ends. Instead, it will further enable dictators and unscrupulous suppliers--including some European suppliers--to buy and sell arms. It will also provide a justification under international law for dictatorships to oppress their people.

Any U.N. treaty based on the October resolution that seeks to control the import, export, and transfer of conventional weapons will fail and, in failing, exacerbate the existing evils. If all U.N. member states were serious about its aims, no new treaty would be necessary. The unwillingness of the treaty's supporters to face this reality is the best evidence that the treaty is based on destructive illusions and will be a dangerous failure in practice.

Ted R. Bromund, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow and Steven Groves is Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.

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