America and the Arms Trade Treaty

Daryl G. Kimball

Each year, thousands of civilians around the world are slaughtered by weapons sold to unscrupulous regimes and transferred to criminals and illegal militias. The enormous human toll of this cycle of violence undermines economic development and political stability in 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. Five years after the United Nations adopted a resolution calling for talks “establishing common international standards for the import, export, and transfer of conventional arms,” a widely supported arms trade treaty (ATT) text is within reach.

Since 2008, the United States has participated in expert talks, and in October 2009, Washington supported the UN resolution laying out a schedule for talks on an ATT. A final negotiating conference is scheduled for July 2012. At the United States’ insistence, agreement on the treaty text requires consensus.

It is in the United States’ interest to take the lead in supporting an effective, bulletproof ATT. By preventing military equipment, including small arms and light weapons, from reaching the hands of terrorists, criminals, and dictators, an ATT would assist U.S. partners and allies abroad in their efforts to protect human rights, promote stable democracies, and build more secure and productive societies.

An ATT 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.

An ATT also should 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 report regularly and publicly on their arms sales and purchases, transfer approvals, and reasons for license denials.

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

An unregulated arms trade increases the availability of weapons in conflict zones. Arms brokers can exploit these conditions to sell weapons to criminals and insurgents fighting U.S. troops.

For example, the Italy-based smuggling ring of Alessandro Bon sent multiple shipments of military sniper scopes and other military goods via a Romanian front company through Dubai to Iran in violation of a UN arms embargo. This equipment, in turn, found its way into the hands of insurgents fighting NATO forces in Afghanistan. By requiring states to license or otherwise regulate the activities of brokers and importers, an ATT could aid in the prevention of similar operations.

Unfortunately, in the United States, the value of an ATT has been obscured by the misleading lobbying efforts of the National Rifle Association and its proxies in Congress who allege that the still-to-be-negotiated treaty will clash with legal firearms possession in the United States. That is not the case.

Some of these concerns are reflected in two recent letters circulated by Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and signed by 55 other senators. Although both letters recognize the security and humanitarian benefits of the treaty, the Moran letter notes that certain states have called for certain internal arms transfers to be monitored.

Although some states might seek such provisions, such measures are undeniably outside the scope of the treaty. The 2009 UN General Assembly resolution establishing the ATT negotiation process explicitly acknowledges the exclusive right of states “to regulate internal transfers of arms and national ownership, including through national constitutional protections.”

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 letter claims this makes the treaty too “broad” and therefore unenforceable.

This argument ignores the fact that the U.S. government already controls the export and import of small arms and light weapons and their ammunition. It is in the interest of the United States to ensure that other states are required to follow similar practices.

Allegations that an ATT would infringe on the right of U.S. citizens to legally possess firearms amount to irresponsible demagoguery. Advocates of legal civilian gun possession should recognize the value of an ATT in reducing the carnage created by illicit and irresponsible international arms transfers. As governments work to finalize a treaty by next year, the Obama administration and Congress should join together to support a meaningful outcome.