Separating Fact from Fiction on the #ArmsTreaty | Politics of Poverty

July 21 2011, 11:25 AM  by Oistein Thorsen
A victim of armed violence in Albania. A parliamentarian from Uruguay. A women’s rights activist from the Central African Republic. And an American arms control expert.

They all spoke last Thursday at a UN Conference on the Proposed Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) about the need for increased global regulations on the international trade of conventional arms and how regulations could prevent the loss of innocent life and improve global security. I attended the week-long conference as Oxfam is part of the Control Arms coalition which put these speakers forward.

After the Control Arms representatives spoke, Wayne LaPierre, the Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association rose to speak.
Could it be easier to buy weapons? Credit: Fortune; Designers; Katerina Arvanitidou, Harris Theodoratos, Gabriela Vati, Photo: Corbis/Apeiron Photos.Could it be easier to buy weapons? (c) Fortune; Designers; Katerina Arvanitidou, Harris Theodoratos, Gabriela Vati, Photo: Corbis/Apeiron Photos.

By Scott Stedjan, Oxfam America, previously posted on the Politics of Poverty blog

The National Rifle Association (NRA) is concerned with protecting the US Constitutional Right to keep and bear arms. Why would this organization care about the international arms trade and global efforts to prevent weapons from being transferred to places where that will be used for war crimes and human rights violations? There are rules that bind countries to agreed-upon conduct for many areas of international trade. But while the US and other countries chose to control arms flows in its national law, there are still no global rules for the cross-border trade in weapons. The resulting unrestrained arms trade has fueled war crimes, human rights abuse, organized crime, terrorism, and undermined development endeavors.

I have been working on this issue since 2004, and I still don’t really understand their objections. Excerpts from Mr. LaPierre’s speech are below, accompanied by the facts.

We are told ‘Trust us; an ATT will not interfere with state domestic regulation of firearms.’ Yet, there are constant calls for exactly such measures.”

If there are calls, I haven’t heard them and no one is listening to them. The UN General Assumbly resolution starting the process on the Arms Trade Treaty explicitly states that it is “the exclusive right of States to regulate internal transfers of arms and national ownership, including through constitutional protections on private ownership.” No ATT can therefore infringe on that exclusive right. To that end, all the papers circulated by the Chair of the UN ATT process clearly reference that right.

“We are told ‘Trust us; an ATT will only affect the illegal trade in firearms.’ But then we’re told that in order to control the illegal trade, all states must control the legal firearms trade.”

It’s strange to argue that states shouldn’t have a handle on legal trade in order to regulate illegal trade. It’s a little like saying that you don’t need to monitor legal pharmaceuticals trade in order to prevent illegal narcotics trade. The ATT will likely require states to adopt a national regulatory system that would control arms transfers of all types of weapons entering or leaving their country. The US already does this so this would not change anything for the US gun manufacturers or gun owners.

“We are told, ‘Trust us; an ATT will not require registration of civilian firearms.’ Yet, there are numerous calls for record-keeping, and firearms tracking from production to eventual destruction. That’s nothing more than gun registration by a different name.”

Most countries supportive of an ATT call for states to keep track of weapons leaving or entering their country. Adding transparency to the international arms trade by keeping track of transfers and reporting on them is not the same thing as gun registration. No treaty will require individuals to register their weapons – though it may require governments to report on who they granted licenses to, the destination of the weapons, and the quantity. Civilian gun registration is beyond the scope of this excercise.

“We are told, ‘Trust us; an ATT will not interfere with a hunter or sport shooter travelling internationally with firearms.’ However, he would have to get a so-called “transit permit” merely to change airports for a connecting flight.”

The ATT only addresses international transfers of conventional arms. By definition an international arms transfer requires that a weapon 1) crosses a border of a sovereign state, and 2) changes ownership. The ATT would have nothing to do with travelers carrying arms since the weapon never changes ownership. And no state that I know of has ever called for transit permits for individuals within the ATT discussions. If one did, it wasn’t a serious proposal because the ATT is only about international transfers.

“We are told, ‘Trust us; an ATT will not create a new international bureaucracy.” Well that’s exactly what is now being proposed — with a tongue-in-cheek assurance that it will just be a SMALL bureaucracy.”

Pretty much all states at the UN meetings are opposed to a global enforcement bureaucracy within the ATT. What is being discussed is an “implementation support unit” that will serve as a repository of information states submit, help states prepare for meetings of states parties, and help link governments that need assistance setting up legal, regulatory, and law enforcement mechanisms with assistance providers. The ATT will be enforced by national governments in their regulatory systems. The ATT will just require states to adopt regulations and enforce laws. Anything more than that would be unacceptable to the US and other countries.

Mr. LaPierre goes on to make his core point:

“It is regrettable that proposals affecting civilian firearms ownership are woven throughout the proposed ATT. That being the case, however, there is only one solution to this problem: the complete removal of civilian firearms from the scope of any ATT… On this there can be no compromise, as American gun owners will never surrender their Second Amendment freedom… the NRA will fight with all of its strength to oppose any ATT that includes civilian firearms within its scope.”   

Here the NRA states that it will oppose any treaty that places requirements on governments to place basic controls on the international transfer of “civilian firearms.” But what does including civilian firearms in the scope actually mean?

Including civilian firearms within the scope of an ATT would just mean that 1) governments will be required to license and monitor exports and imports of firearms and 2) before deciding to allow any transfer, a government entity will assess whether the transfer in question poses a risk to human rights abuse, war crimes, support international terrorism, undermine regional stability, or violate regional or global agreements. The US already does these things and it has no impact on the Second Amendment freedoms. A treaty would then only require the US to continue to do what it does. The NRA is essentially asking the world to adopt a standard lower than that of the US in this area and thus weaken, not strengthen, global security and the protection of human rights.