As Arms Trade Treaty nears vote at UN, critics in US see a 'gun grab'

UN is set to vote Thursday on a proposed Arms Trade Treaty to regulate global imports and exports of conventional weapons. Backers see a way to prevent human rights abuses. Critics see red flags, including curtailed access for Americans to imported guns.

Joshua Lott/Reuters/File
An attendee holds a handgun at the 7th annual Border Security Expo in Phoenix, Arizona, March 12. The Arms Trade Treaty, which is set to come to a vote among UN member countries Thursday, would cover trade in conventional weapons ranging from handguns to weapons of war such as missiles and tanks.

Right as Washington is preoccupied with a series of gun-control measures, the United Nations is nearing approval of an Arms Trade Treaty that opponents in America's gun-rights community say constitutes a back-door gun grab that will trample Second Amendment rights.

Supporters of the treaty, which is set to come to a vote among UN member countries Thursday, decry such arguments as fear-mongering and nonsense. Rather, they say, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is a long-overdue regulation of the global arms import and export trade that will help curtail the flow of weapons into conflict zones and the hands of human rights violators.

The treaty would cover trade in conventional weapons ranging from handguns to weapons of war such as missiles and tanks. It would direct countries exporting or importing arms to assess the risk that such weapons would end up being used to commit terrorist attacks or to engage in human rights abuses including torture and genocide. 

“We have agreements on the standards for trade in everything else that crosses borders, from T-shirts and iron ore to cars and wheat,” says Daniel Prins, secretary general of the ATT conference now under way in New York and chief of the conventional arms branch of the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs. “The arms trade has been an exception to that, but the ATT would provide a global set of standards for sending arms to another country.”

That “set of standards” has nothing to do with setting firearms quality or regulating models and calibers. “This is not a treaty about banning a particular category of weapons,” Mr. Prins notes. Instead, the ATT would establish a “set of standards” for the import and export of arms, with an eye to reducing the flow of arms into conflict zones or into countries where the arms are likely to be used by organized crime or in a way that violates human rights.

For example, the ATT aims to curtail the “shopping around” that often occurs when regimes in conflict with some of their own citizens or nonstate groups are denied coveted weapons by one arms-trading country.

In that sense the ATT is more of a human rights treaty than it is a trade agreement. And that aspect is what gives the ATT its most emphatic advocates –and some of its toughest critics.

“For major exporters, every arms sale is already a balancing act, and what we’re trying to do [with the ATT] is raise the profile of human rights in that balancing act,” says Natalie Goldring, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies who is working with the Control Arms coalition of more than 100 international groups to push for a strong ATT agreement.

Organizations from Oxfam to Amnesty International are pressing for a treaty they say would enhance human rights around the world by reducing arms trafficking and the diversion of legitimately acquired weaponry into illicit hands. “Any step toward restraining the illicit sale and transfer of weapons used to commit crimes is a good move forward, and the world could use a lot more steps in the direction of ending human rights abuses,” said Amnesty USA’s chief of campaigns and programs, Michelle Ringuette, recently.

This week, advocates warned that negotiations have led to a watered-down treaty text, and they are demanding a return to stronger standards before the ATT is put to a consensus vote Thursday. Most observers expect a treaty will adopted.

But others say a treaty that aims to curtail the arms trade by using a set of UN-established standards should actually give advocates of universal rights pause.

“This [ATT] is a human rights instrument; it’s being promoted for human rights reasons,” says Theodor Bromund, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “But if you look at how human rights are already dealt with in the UN system, it’s not very encouraging.” Bodies such as the Human Rights Council tend to focus their attention on “violators” like Israel or the US, he says, while members of what he calls the “club of dictators” see their violations overlooked and are even sometimes rewarded with seats on human rights bodies.

“Is that the standard we want to set for the arms trade?” says Dr. Bromund, who is monitoring the ATT negotiations.

The first ATT conference was held last year, but negotiations were suspended after several countries including the US said more time was needed to deliver a satisfactory text. Many human rights advocates speculated at the time that President Obama had no interest in seeing an international arms treaty become an issue in the presidential election.

The UN General Assembly voted in December to try again with a another conference, and this year the Obama administration has endorsed adoption of the ATT. In a statement, Secretary of State John Kerry said, “We support a treaty that will bring all countries closer to existing international best practices, which we already observe, while preserving national decisions to transfer conventional arms responsibly.”          

At least 100 countries do not have controls in place for regulating international conventional arms transfers, Secretary Kerry notes. A treaty would help “responsible nations” reduce the risk that arms would be used to carry out “the world’s worst crimes,” he adds.

But Kerry also emphasized in his statement that the US “will not support any treaty that would be inconsistent with US law and the rights of American citizens under our Constitution, including the Second Amendment.”

Despite such assurances, gun-rights advocates in the US see a more sinister intent behind the proposed treaty.

The National Rifle Association sees the ATT as an international attempt to control personal weapons. NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre has not appeared at this year’s conference, but last year he told delegates that “civilian firearms” should be exempt from the treaty. NRA offshoots including the World Forum on Shooting Activities blast the treaty as a veiled attempt by governments to deny citizens their right to guns.  

In Washington, Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas says the ATT “raises sovereignty concerns” and would adversely affect the public’s access to a variety of firearms. “Law-abidng Texans who are in the market for an imported shotgun, pistol, or rifle ought to be very concerned about” the ATT’s impact on gun imports, he said in a statement. About one-third of personal firearms in the US are imported.

Over the weekend, Sen. James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma attached to the Senate budget an amendment that would prohibit the US from signing the ATT.

A particularly vehement opponent of the ATT is former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton. The former Bush administration diplomat says US support for the ATT is evidence that Obama is intent on submitting the US to “an international control agenda.” He claims, as he said in a recent radio interview, that the ATT would force the US “to change our gun control laws” while “rogue states and dictatorships around the world would just go their own way.”

Georgetown’s Dr. Goldring says the ATT would actually have little impact on the US arms trade “because we already have a robust system” – although she says treaty advocates “do hope that under the ATT the US would enforce current laws more rigorously.”

Bromund, at the Heritage Foundation, says he has little use for the “UN gun grab argument,” not only because it’s not true but also because it detracts attention from what he sees as the real problems with the ATT.

"This treaty is not going to have an immediate catastrophic impact if it’s approved,” he says. But he worries it will become a source of pressure on the US “over time,” for example concerning arms sales to Israel or Taiwan.

In the meantime, he adds, the world’s dictators and weak states aren’t likely to mend their ways as a result of the ATT. “In the end these are governance issues,” Bromund adds, “and it’s not clear how a treaty addresses that.”

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