Coauthored with Emma Welch, research associate in the International Institutions and Global Governance program.
As the protracted conflict in Syria escalates rapidly into civil war—fueled by arms both legally sold and illegally procured—delegations from 193 UN member states are convened in New York for month-long negotiations to hammer out a legally-binding treaty regulating the international conventional arms trade by the fast-approaching deadline of July 27.
The conference is off to a predictably rocky start. First, substantive discussions were delayed due to an unrelated dispute over the official status of the Palestinian delegation. Soon afterward, Iran was elected to the fifteen-member general committee, sparking a chorus of condemnation and raising red flags over the credibility of the conference as a whole. (Among other things, Iran arms Hezbollah in Lebanon and funnels weapons to the Assad regime, not to mention its record of illegal nuclear activities.)
Although such sideline issues serve as easy media fodder, participating countries generally agree that a treaty is desperately needed and long overdue. Valued at upwards of $40 billion each year, the international arms trade is largely unregulated and rife with loopholes exploited by rogue states, terrorist groups, and enterprising criminal syndicates. Despite twenty-six UN, regional, and multilateral arms embargoes, Oxfam estimates that approximately $2.2 billion in arms and ammunition bypassed such restrictions between 2000 and 2010. In addition, only fifty-two countries have laws regulating arms brokers, half of which have no associated criminal penalties. And according to Amnesty International, the global trade in commodities like bananas, iPods, and dinosaur bones are more heavily restricted than conventional weapons ranging from handguns to AK-47s to surface-to-air missiles.
An international arms treaty would work to stem the flow of licit and illicit arms into unstable countries and regions, and prevent such weapons from falling into the wrong hands. However, despite three years of preparations and nearly a decade of advocacy campaigns, there remains a lack of consensus on the scope, criteria, and implementation of the treaty. The usual suspects, Russia, China, and—to a certain extent—the United States, are among the most influential of a handful of countries raising objections, particularly over the proposed inclusion of small arms and ammunition, human rights criteria, and regulatory measures. And to compound matters, the United States continues to face domestic opposition to its participation in the treaty negotiations.
Like other important international treaties such as the Rome Statute and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, U.S. domestic objections are primarily rooted in national sovereignty concerns. The National Rifle Association (NRA) has spearheaded the attacks, framing the arms trade treaty as a violation of the second amendment. In a speech before the UN conference last week, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre called the potential treaty “an offense to any American who has ever breathed our free air.” Two days ago, Republican presidential Mitt Romney echoed such sentiments at a town hall meeting: “Turning to the United Nations to tell us how to raise our kids, or whether we can have the Second Amendment rights that our Constitution gave us, I mean, that is the wrong way to go, right? Do not cede sovereignty. I’m happy to talk there. I’m not willing to give American sovereignty in any way, shape or form to the United Nations or any other body. We are a free nation.”
Such unequivocal declarations are not only inflammatory, they are completely unfounded. The treaty is limited to the international trade of conventional arms, which pertains to the buying, selling, transshipping, transferring, or loaning across borders. The draft text of the treaty explicitly recognizes “the exclusive right of States to regulate internal transfers of arms and national ownership, including through the constitutional protections on private ownership.” Moreover, U.S. participation and support are contingent upon a set of red lines, first and foremost of which is the primacy of the U.S. Constitution.
In response to the charges that the treaty would coopt U.S. national sovereignty, arms control experts argue that the treaty would have “little to no impact” on existing regulatory processes, and that American businesses would not assume any additional regulatory burdens. The United States already has in place a rigorous export control system, defined as the “gold standard.” Instead, the treaty is primarily aimed at countries in which rigorous controls and oversight are absent, in an attempt to harmonize and coordinate standards worldwide.
As the top global supplier of major conventional weapons, accounting for 30 percent of all exports (Russia is a close second with 24 percent), the United States has the special responsibility to marshal its diplomatic energy toward crafting a robust, enforceable, and sustainable treaty that will raise global standards and ultimately save lives. Given the divergent and often competing interests at stake, appeasing domestic constituencies is just one of the many hurdles to overcome in order to reach a consensus on a “bulletproof” treaty.