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The Arms Trade Treaty - Less than Meets the Eye
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You might not know about the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).  In fact, it does not exist, even in draft form.  However, in 2006 following an initiative by then-Foreign Secretary of the UK Jack Straw, the United Nations General Assembly passed a
resolution that called upon states to submit their views on an ATT to a Group of Government Experts (GGE).  The United States was the only country to vote against that resolution.

About 100 countries did provide their views, which are summarized in a report by a non-government organization (NGO).  Predictably, almost everyone thought an ATT would be a fine idea, and last December the UN voted again to urge countries to continue their work on an ATT.  This time, the United States was joined by that paragon of international virtue, Zimbabwe, in voting against the resolution.  That of course was in the bad old days of the Bush Administration, and Washington is now under new management.

ATT supporters include NGOs such as Oxfam, Amnesty International, and the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), as well as a number of Nobel laureates (Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, IAEA chief Mohamed El Baradei, and Lech Walesa). 

In December 2006, fourteen US senators (led by Dianne Feinstein, D-CA) sent a letter to then-Secretary of State Rice expressing their “disappointment” that the US voted against the first ATT resolution.   Sen. Bryon Dorgan (D-ND) subsequently unsigned that letter, writing Secretary Rice that his name had been “mistakenly attached.”  Oops.

ATT advocates understandably and justifiably express outrage over the instability and outrages wrought by irresponsible and illicit arms transfers.  The seemingly bottomless supply of weapons to terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the massive firepower that Mexican drug cartels smuggle from the United States, are but two current examples of direct relevance to Washington. 

ATT supporters say that a legally binding treaty would force states to adopt responsible policies on arms transfers and to develop the laws and regulations necessary to end the illicit trade in arms. 

As I said, there is not even a draft ATT, but the NGOs have pulled together some “global principles” for an ATT drawing upon the national inputs to the GGE.  These principles include requiring states not to authorize arms transfers in defiance of the UN Charter, Security Council embargoes, human rights and other aspects of international law, including international humanitarian law.  (I’ve never read that law and can’t seem to find a copy.)  They would also require countries to adopt some semblance of reasonable export controls so that the government’s arms transfer decisions are not routinely flouted.

So what’s wrong with this?  The United States has the tightest controls on its arms exports of any country, “’the gold standard’ of the world,” according the letter from the 14 (check: 13) senators.  So why not level (up) the playing field and reduce the world’s misery, and at the same time make things tougher for other countries whose defense industries compete with ours, often on the basis of being less fastidious about whom the sell to?  Why so skeptical?

Because the ATT is a chimera.   Its objective (reducing or eliminating irresponsible and illicit arms transfers) is worthy and important, and the job it aims to do needs doing.  But an international convention will not be effective in this regard, and even pursuing it could have invidious effects.  Here’s why.

A good arms transfer policy needs two things: 1) effective laws, regulations, and enforcement, and 2) responsible arms transfer policies to be implemented by those laws and regulations. 

Nothing prevents governments from adopting now effective controls on the export of their weapons.  The United States has had a program for assisting other countries in doing so for more than a decade.  Moreover, there have been serious international efforts to get countries to tighten their controls on discrete types of weapons, including the 2001 Program of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons.  However, when the participants in the Program of Action got together for a review conference in 2006, they could not even come up with a consensus document.  In 2003, the European Union adopted a Common Position that required all member states to adopt controls on arms brokering (the United States has had such controls since 1996), but five have yet to do so.  To believe that countries would sign on to a treaty that would require them to do what they can do anyway, and which most responsible governments have done without being required to do so by a treaty, is wildly optimistic.

Moreover, the regulatory rigor of export control systems aside, it is the arms transfer policies of governments that matter most.  While the NPT prohibits its parties from proliferating nuclear weapons, and Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions prohibit their parties from possessing or transferring those weapons of mass destruction, almost all governments consider the transfer of conventional weapons to be a legitimate instrument of national security and foreign policy.  Even with the best legal and regulatory frameworks in place, governments will (and I maintain should) retain the authority to say yes or no on international arms transfers on the basis of their respective national security and foreign policies.

Case in point: the Iranian supply of weapons and explosives to terrorists and insurgents in Iraq or Hizballah is not the consequence of the lack of an international agreement on arms transfer norms.  Tehran supplies those weapons because doing so serves the national security policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Similarly, Russia supplies advanced weapons to Iran and China, and China supplies weapons to Iran, Burma, and Sudan.  They do so for economic and foreign policy reasons that suit Moscow and Beijing. 

Does anyone think that they will agree to an ATT that requires them to stop?  Does anyone think that an ATT that doesn’t require them to stop is worthy of the support of the United States and other responsible arms suppliers?

But what’s the downside?  Wouldn’t even an ineffective ATT have some value, at least in sending a signal that someone cares?  And won’t we feel better about ourselves if we try?  I contend there are at least two net negative consequences of an ATT.

First, governments (particularly the United States) often object to other countries’ arms transfers.  Having delivered such protests myself, I can tell you that the usual response is a shrug of the shoulders accompanied by “Is it illegal?  Is there a Security Council embargo on that country?  Is the transfer prohibited by some international regime that my government is part of?  No?  Then have a nice day.”  An ATT that doesn’t clearly prohibit arms exports to terrorist groups or pariah states will have the perverse effect of giving the Good Housekeeping seal of approval to those transfers.  Better nothing than lowest-common-denominator pabulum.

Second, some governments (including the United States) will try to take seriously their obligations if they become parties to an ATT.  Even without an ATT, there are always some voices (louder in some administrations than in others) that are raised against U.S. arms transfer decisions.  Should the United States curtail or restrict arms transfers to Israel because Jerusalem could be accused of violating the “norms of international humanitarian law” in Gaza or Lebanon?  Should we repeal the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act and cut off arms transfers to Taiwan because it is not generally recognized as a sovereign state?  Some of our coalition partners in what I still prefer to call the Global War on Terrorism have pretty lousy standards of human rights (no need to mention names), so maybe the troops they send to fight alongside U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq should use somebody else’s military equipment.   An ATT could provide an echo chamber for the voices of these domestic and international critics of US arms transfer policy and could restrict any administration’s freedom of maneuver in using U.S. arms transfers as a foreign policy tool by applying the treaty’s provisions more rigorously than other, less high-minded governments would do.

Sometimes multilateral negotiations produce agreements that deserve the support of responsible people and governments.  I’m very glad there is a Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the essentially global bans on chemical and biological weapons.  But an Arms Trade Treaty will do very little or nothing to advance its goal of restraining illicit and irresponsible arms transfers. 

Gregory M. Suchan served as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs from 2000 to2007.  His 34-year career with the Department of State focused primarily on political-military issues including arms control and included overseas assignments to U.S. diplomatic missions in Mexico, London, NATO headquarters, Pakistan and Denmark.  He is currently a Senior Associate with Commonwealth Consulting Corporation.