The Arms Trade Treaty Dilemma
How the NRA spun a web of lies.
Shiven Chambial | 12/03/20
On 25th April 2019, President Donald Trump unsigned the Arms Trade Treaty as a part of his flawed America First policy. This move came as a shock to many around the world and was a huge blow to the foundation of the landmark treaty. President Trump chose to announce this decision at the National Rifle Association’s annual conference asking for the Senate to return the Arms Trade Treaty to the White House so it could “be disposed of”.
Let’s first analyse what exactly is the Arms Trade Treaty and how it has shaped the United State’s policy towards arms control. The Arms Trade Treaty is a multilateral treaty that regulates international trade in conventional weapons. It establishes common international standards and looks to curb the illegal and illicit trade of weapons which ultimately end up in the hands of non-state actors and criminal organizations. The Arms Trade Treaty was adopted at the 71st plenary meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on the 2nd of April in the year 2013 as a resolution to a 154-3 vote which also included 23 abstentions. One must also note that major arms exporters like Russia, China, and India to name a few were among those who abstained. The Obama administration signed the treaty on the 25th of September in 2013 however the Senate did not ratify the treaty. This meant that although the administration had declared its intention to abide by the principles of the treaty, it was not legally bound to follow its stipulations and was not answerable to the parent body which is the United Nations, which it would have been had it ratified the treaty as well. After Trump’s announcement of withdrawal from the treaty, China has declared its intention to join the treaty and Afghanistan has also signed and ratified the treaty.
The U.S. position on the ATT is rooted in the political, social, and cultural contexts in which arms trade issues operate in the United States. The United States views arms exports as a means to further political, security, and diplomatic objectives and has a strong political and cultural history around weapons. The overarching policy framework governing U.S. arms exports today is Presidential Decision Directive 34, established by President Bill Clinton in 1995, which contains specific policy goals and export criteria for arms transfer decisions. In addition to the comprehensive export control regime maintained by the United States, during the last 30 years, over 30 international, multilateral, and regional agreements have been developed on a variety of aspects of the conventional arms trade.
The United States maintains comprehensive and sophisticated laws governing arms sales. The two most relevant, in the context of the ATT, are the 1976 Arms Export Control Act (AECA) and the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act (FAA). In general terms, the United States has designed its laws to ensure that U.S. arms transfers are completed in accordance with U.S. policy objectives. The longstanding supposed tenets of U.S. arms export law are to ensure that U.S. weapons transfers do not undermine regional and global security and stability, support military coups, escalate arms races, exacerbate ongoing conflicts, or cause regional arms buildups and are not used to commit human rights abuses.
However, there are almost 875 million such weapons in circulation and a substantial amount of them end up in the hands of non-state actors. The United States has been one of the biggest contributors to this problem.
Let us now examine how the NRA has been painting the ATT and what exactly is the truth regarding the treaty.
Firstly, in regards to the Second Amendment. The NRA says that “ [E]very gun owner concerned about the future of our Right to Keep and Bear Arms should be aware that the United Nations and the global gun eradication movement are attempting to eliminate our Second Amendment freedoms by drafting a U.N. Arms Trade Treaty.” — May 25, 2012, story on the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action website. However, the ATT explicitly states that it has no impact on the domestic ownership or domestic transfer of arms. In fact, no international treaty can override US constitutional rights, including Second Amendment rights. The current draft treaty states that it is the “sovereign right and responsibility of any State to regulate and control transfers of conventional arms that take place exclusively within its territory, pursuant to its own legal or constitutional systems.” The treaty also takes note of “the legitimate trade and use of certain conventional arms, inter alia, for recreational, cultural, historical, and sporting activities and lawful ownership where such ownership and use are permitted and protected by law.”
Secondly, in regards to tracking of arms. The NRA says “[The treaty has] numerous calls for record-keeping, and firearms tracking from production to eventual destruction. That's nothing more than gun registration by a different name.” — Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA. However, the treaty does not require individuals to register weapons nor does it require countries to track weapons after they enter the stream of commerce. The treaty addresses the official export and import of weapons by nations. It requires each importing state party to “adopt appropriate measures to prevent the diversion of imported conventional arms under the scope of this Treaty to the illicit market or for unauthorized end use.” The record-keeping requirements meet current US law and are limited to “export authorizations or actual exports of the conventional arms under the scope of this Treaty.” The US already meets these requirements and maintains such records aimed at keeping weapons out of illicit markets. No change in US policy or practice is required to implement this section of the treaty.
Lastly, in regards to reporting to the United Nations. The NRA quotes “[T]he Arms Trade Treaty risks imposing costly regulatory burdens on United States businesses, for example, by creating onerous reporting requirements that could damage the domestic defense manufacturing base and related firms.” -- House Resolution 814, Nov. 16, 2012. However, the treaty will not require any additional regulatory burdens or reporting by US companies. The US already has one of the world’s most transparent reporting systems for arms transfers. The State Department currently publishes a Congressionally-mandated public report—the Section 655 Military Assistance Report—that lists the value and quantity of defense equipment and services sold to each foreign country from US arms and defense manufacturers. The US also annually reports to the UN Register of Conventional Arms. The treaty will not require any additional reporting by US companies.
Hence, we can conclude that fact the National Rifle Association has been using misinformation to build optics against the Arms Trade Treaty and has been painting a web of lies which has been used by Donald Trump to fulfill his own ideals whereas blatantly ignoring the good the treaty does to ensure international peace and security.