The Problem with the Arms Trade Treaty

Posted: Oct 13, 2013 12:01 AM

The Law of the Sea Treaty. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Yes, when it comes to international agreements that may seem harmless until you read the fine print, the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty has plenty of company. Like the pacts cited above, the ATT has been signed by the U.S., but not ratified by the Senate.

Nor is it likely to be. But that doesn’t mean it won’t prove damaging to the United States and its interests.

The ATT has numerous flaws. Start with the most obvious: the fact that it won’t do what it sets out to do -- regulate the flow of arms to and from rogue states. Major arms exporters such as China and Russia don’t support it, and the idea that it will stop, say, Cuba from continuing to arm North Korea (to name two other notable non-signers) is a joke.

“Like gun-control laws, even with the Arms Trade Treaty, bad actors will continue to act accordingly,” write Sens. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) in a recent op-ed for The Washington Times.

Three years ago, the Obama administration made it quite clear that unanimous global adoption of the ATT was crucial, going so far as to say that “not getting a universal agreement would make any agreement less than useless.”

Sounds pretty damning. Yet fast forward to today, and we have Secretary of State John Kerry telling us -- as he signs that very agreement -- that it will “lift other countries up to the highest standards.” Not a bad trick for a “less than useless” document.

“The inanity of the idea that a mere treaty will be able to do what U.N. Security Council sanctions have been unable to achieve,” The Heritage Foundation’s Ted Bromund writes, “would be laughable were the subject not so serious.”

But wishful thinking seems to be the order of the day among the ATT’s supporters. As Kerry signed it, for example, he claimed that the treaty “recognizes the freedom of both individuals and states to obtain, possess, and use arms for legitimate purposes.”

Actually, it recognizes only that nations have this freedom. When it comes to individuals, the ATT notes merely that it is “mindful of … legitimate trade and lawful ownership” where it is “permitted or protected by law.”

Yes, “mindful.” Not exactly the firm endorsement that Kerry implied in his remarks -- that of the right of individuals to purchase and own guns. Small wonder that Second Amendment groups are alarmed. All Americans should be.

The fact that the Senate hasn’t ratified it, and likely never will, should comfort no one. The State Department will argue that we’re bound not to violate the “object and purpose” of any agreement we’ve signed -- and now that includes the ATT. The administration can argue that Senate action isn’t required to implement the treaty in the United States.

That’s a disturbing prospect for a treaty that Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Countryman has described as “ambiguous,” and rightfully so. The ATT doesn’t define its terms. Writes Bromund: “The treaty is a conveyor belt that will pull along its signatories -- including, potentially, the U.S. -- as the meanings of its terms are defined.”

Moreover, the ATT may compromise the ability of the U.S. to arm the opponents of tyrannical regimes worldwide. When the violence in Syria broke out, for example, some (including President Obama) called for arming certain groups among the Syrian rebels. But ATT supporters were quick to argue that such activity is “arguably unlawful” under the treaty.

As Inhofe and Moran write: “Our constitutional rights are too important to be entrusted to a dangerous treaty drafted by nations hostile to the ownership of firearms by private citizens.” Let’s hope the next administration “unsigns” this pernicious pact.

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