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Strengthening U.S. National Security Through the Global Arms Trade Treaty

Volume 2, Issue 11, August 12, 2011

Each year, thousands of civilians around the world are slaughtered by weapons sold to unscrupulous regimes and  transferred to illegal militias and criminals. In addition to the human toll, this cycle of violence undermines economic development and political stability in often fragile regions.

As the world's top conventional arms exporter with one of the most robust export control systems, the United States--along with its allies and partners--stands to benefit from tougher, global standards for the arms trade.

The successful negotiation and adoption of a global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) to regulate international weapons transfers would bolster both the security interests of the United States and its efforts to promote human rights and stability abroad.

In December 2006, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 61/89 "Towards an Arms Trade Treaty: establishing common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms," leading to expert discussions on the proposition. In 2009, UN member states, led by the UK and co-authors, including Australia, endorsed a resolution to negotiate "a legally binding instrument on the highest possible common international standards for the transfer of conventional arms." At the insistence of the United States, the negotiating conference must agree on the treaty text by consensus.

Now, some five years after the process began, the possibility of securing a uniform framework to monitor and regulate the international arms trade is within reach. Last month, from July 11-15, delegations from more than 100 governments, including the United States, met for the Third Preparatory Committee meeting on the treaty.

Momentum for the treaty accelerated with statements from global investors with over $1.2 trillion in assets, an international group of armed violence survivors, and representatives from the arms industry. Member states plan to meet for four weeks in mid-2012 to finalize the text of the ATT.

Toward an Effective Arms Trade Treaty

The United States needs to be out front pushing for a meaningful, bullet-proof Arms Trade Treaty. By preventing military equipment, including small arms and light weapons, from reaching the hands of terrorists, criminals, and human rights abusers, an ATT would assist U.S. partners and allies abroad in their efforts to protect human rights, promote stable democracies, and help build more secure and productive societies.

The ATT now under consideration should require states-parties to enact laws regulating the export, import, transfer, and brokering of arms. These regulations should apply to all major military equipment and small arms that are transferred from one party to another across international borders.

The ATT should also call on states to identify possible criteria for denial of international arms transfer licenses; this list should address human rights, security, and development concerns. In addition, a strong treaty should require member states to regularly and publicly report on their arms sales and purchases, transfer approvals, and the reasons for license denials.

To be effective, the ATT needs to be comprehensive and cover not only the many types of arms transfers--such as sales, gifts, and transfers of technology--but it must also include the weapons themselves, their components, and their ammunition.

The effectiveness of the ATT will be diminished if states-parties negotiate a final text that is unnecessarily narrow in scope and fails to include sufficient requirements for the effective implementation of its goals.

The National Security Logic of an Arms Trade Treaty

Work on the ATT began in 2006 and the United States has participated in the process since 2009. Speaking in February 2010, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher explained the security rationale for the United States' support for the Arms Trade Treaty:

"[S]table societies and secure environments are the best places for the growth of freedom and prosperity." She said that "robust and vigorous regulation and enforcement would make it much more difficult for terrorist groups or rogue nations to destabilize regions or support terrorist activity."

Enemies of the United States benefit from two consequences of a poorly regulated arms trade: the perpetuation of chaos in the host state where they seek refuge, and the increased availability of military material with which they can arm themselves.

The risk of high-quality military goods reaching insurgents fighting U.S. troops and allies abroad is not an abstract, theoretical danger. One recent well-reported case involves the Italy-based smuggling ring of Alessandro Bon, which sent multiple shipments of military sniper scopes and other military goods to Iran, in violation of a UN arms embargo. German troops in Afghanistan subsequently recovered two of the scopes after being fired upon by snipers, leading to renewed scrutiny of Iran's arms smuggling capabilities.

The ATT would assist state authorities investigating similar cases in several ways. According to news reports based on Italian court documents, a Romanian front company set up by the Bon syndicate and an alleged Iranian intelligence operative helped facilitate at least one shipment of sniper scopes. The transfers were also initially routed through Dubai in order to dispel suspicions. An ATT that requires states-parties to license or otherwise regulate the activities of brokers and importers could aid in the prevention of similar operations.

While some states do currently require licenses for the transit of arms shipments through their territory, others only require verification of export and import documentation or details of the planned physical journey of the arms. A global ATT could help standardize these requirements so that third-countries must make a separate sovereign judgment on the wisdom of granting an arms shipment passage through their territory, based on the same predetermined criteria that exporters must apply.

Arms brokers are primarily responsible for the spread of illegal arms to the world's war zones. As the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said in a July 2011 statement:

"If the activities of brokers are not controlled, then the Arms Trade Treaty will be easily undermined by the activities of unscrupulous brokers operating outside of any regulatory framework or from the territory of member states with little or no controls in place."

Arms Trade Treaty Myths and Realities

Here in the United States, the value of the ATT has been overshadowed by misleading lobbying efforts on the part of the National Rifle Association to misrepresent the treaty's potential effect on domestic gun ownership.

Some of these concerns are reflected in two recent letters addressed to the White House and State Department, circulated by the offices of Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Jon Tester (D-Mon.), and signed by 55 other senators. While both letters sympathize with the security and humanitarian goals of the treaty, their primary assertion is that the still-to-be-negotiated treaty will clash with the constitutional right of U.S. citizens to possess firearms. That is not the case.

The Moran letter claims that certain states have called for internal arms transfers to be regulated in order to effectively combat trafficking. While some states might seek such provisions, such measures are undeniably outside the scope of any possible treaty text. The 2009 UN General Assembly resolution establishing the Arms Trade Treaty negotiation process explicitly acknowledges the exclusive right of states "to regulate internal transfers of arms and national ownership, including through national constitutional protections." Notwithstanding the separate concerns expressed by Sen. Moran and his colleagues regarding the perceived constitutional implications of this choice of words, it is abundantly clear that the vast majority of negotiating parties recognize the "exclusive right" of states to regulate internal arms transfers.

In other words, the ATT will not regulate domestic sales of firearms. Its focus is instead on the control of the internationaltrade in conventional weapons in order to keep them out of the hands of human rights abusers, organized criminal enterprises, and terrorists.

A second concern outlined in the Moran letter relates to the inclusion of small arms and light weapons and their ammunition within the scope of the treaty. The Moran letter claims that this potentially makes the treaty too "broad" and therefore unenforceable.

This argument ignores the fact that the U.S. government, through the Department of State's Directorate of Defense Trade Controls and the Department of Justice's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, already controls the export and import of small arms and light weapons and their ammunition. Given that small arms are the most basic tool for insurgents, belligerents in low-intensity conflicts, terrorists, and criminals, the inclusion of these items in the ATT is essential to its effectiveness. It is in the interest of the United States and its allies to ensure that other states are following similar practices and have a legal mandate to implement effective export and import controls on small arms and light weapons.

Raising Global Standards to Meet U.S. Rules

The potential to raise other countries' international arms trade standards to the same level as that of the United States is a core benefit of the ATT. As Undersecretary Tauscher has noted, the United States possesses one of the "most comprehensive sets of requirements in the world" for the approval of arms exports. By leveling the playing field, an ATT would provide a framework for committing other states involved in the international weapons market to hold to the same requirements.

The right to deny or approve any export, import, or transfer would ultimately remain with the sovereign states-parties. While many provisions of the treaty are still to be fleshed out, this basic principle will not be altered. The chairman's working paper that has emerged from the preparatory committee meetings is not a draft treaty but rather an all-inclusive amalgamation of states' views and opinions that must now be fine-tuned and formalized in the course of the next year, before and during the treaty conference in 2012.

That more than half the U.S. Senate has expressed an interest in the proposed treaty and its potential security windfall is naturally a welcome development. But at this early stage, allegations that an arms trade treaty would infringe upon the right of U.S. citizens to possess firearms are misleading and unwarranted.

Time for Serious Dialogue, Not Demagoguery

Advocates of responsible, legal civilian gun possession should recognize the value of the ATT as a tool to reduce the carnage created by illicit and irresponsible international arms transfers to dictators and terrorists and to conflict-zones where civilians are literally caught in the cross-fire.

The ATT is not, as Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) recently misconstrued it, "... a bunch of bureaucrats at the United Nations dictating our liberties and freedoms." Rather, the Arms Trade Treaty is a responsible approach to a severe global problem that is being led by important and serious U.S. allies, including the United Kingdom, a major arms exporter, which has been a strong proponent of the ATT from the very beginning. As the U.K.'s Ambassador John Duncan said in February 2007, "We do not see the treaty ending the arms trade, but a treaty should be about making sure the arms trade is conducted responsibly and to make sure it is carried out with due regard to the impact that it has."

As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in October 2009, "The United States is committed to actively pursuing a strong and robust treaty that contains the highest possible, legally binding standards for the international transfer of conventional weapons."

As the ATT states-parties work to finalize a treaty by next year, the Obama administration and the Congress should work together to produce such an outcome. -XIAODON LIANG AND DARYL G. KIMBALL

See ACA's ATT Resource Page for more information.