During the last two weeks of June, I was in New York, watching the Third Review Conference of the U.N.’s Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat, and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, usually abbreviated as the Programme of Action, or just the PoA.
For the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal, I’ve explained how the U.S. was cheated by a last minute rule change. But spending a fortnight at the PoA also occasions a few broader thoughts on the dysfunctions of the PoA, and the way the U.S. deals with dysfunctional international institutions.
In this column, I’ll look at some of those dysfunctions. In the next, I’ll focus on how the U.S. tries — and sometimes fails — to come to grips with them.
It’s hard to capture for an outsider the way that little insanities drift by at the U.N. There was the way Finland proposed that PoA demand “equal” participation by women — regardless of how much they know about the illicit small arms trade — and that it condemn “Islamophobia.”
There were the spats between Ukraine and Russia, and Iran and Saudi Arabia, all of whom indulged in some unusual bluntness by condemning each other. In the U.N., the bland assumption that all nations are equally honest, competent, and worth listening to is a fundamental barrier to cooperation.
It’s a tremendous mistake to assume that, just because most national representatives sound good and are dressed in expensive suits, they have the slightest idea what is going on.
And there was Syria, which supported the “right of self-determination against colonial or other forms of alien domination or foreign occupation” (U.N.-speak for terrorism against Israel) but absolutely rejected any effort to divide a sovereign state. In other words, anyone who kills Israelis is a good terrorist, but anyone who resists the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad is a bad terrorist.
But for me, the most telling moment came in the first week. I was sitting next to a representative from the firearms industry who had never been to the U.N. before. After a few hours, he said, in a puzzled voice, “No one here is talking about the the illicit arms trade. It’s all gender and development.”
He was right: the last thing that that anyone wants to talk about at a U.N. conference on the illicit arms trade is the illicit arms trade, the details of which almost never come up. And then he said, with surprise, “And most of the nations in this room are dictatorships.”
Welcome to the United Nations.
It’s not all folly. The non-governmental organization Conflict Armament Research (CAR) was there, in part, to promote their excellent reports, including one on the origin of the weapons and ammunition used by ISIS.
This report is so much better than the dialogue at the U.N. that the disparity should be embarrassing. CAR’s finding that ISIS relies in part on weapons captured from the U.S.- supplied Iraqi army, and from U.S.-supported Syrian opposition groups is valuable and appears solidly grounded.
But even here, there is a caveat. CAR appears to be more interested in proving that the U.S. has supplied Syrian groups with weapons from former Warsaw Pact nations than it does in the fact that about 50 percent of all weapons and ammunition recovered in Iraq and Syria came from Russia and China.
Yet if U.S. didn’t arm Syrian opposition groups, they would be defenseless against pro-Assad or ISIS forces that have Chinese and Russian weaponry in abundance, and who would certainly murder them. More fundamentally, there is no moral equivalence between helping a murderous dictator and helping people who are resisting him.
I admire CAR’s professionalism in tracing weapons. But it would be a tremendous mistake to take the position that CAR implies, which is that we should not take sides between the fire and the fire engine. As long as the Russias and Chinas of the world help Assad, the U.S. cannot be bound by a pettifogging adherence to rules that no one else is respecting.
This piece originally appeared in Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/tedbromund/2018/07/12/the-little-inanities-of-the-u-n-s-gun-control-program/#6af5901d6210