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Recent UN Arms Trade Treaty Conference Marks Dangerous Shift in U.S. Policy

Friday, September 2, 2016

Recent UN Arms Trade Treaty Conference Marks Dangerous Shift in U.S. Policy

August 22 marked the opening date of the week-long Second Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty in Geneva, Switzerland.  It also marked a clear shift in U.S. strategy for dealing with this international gun control effort.

Historically, UN meetings open with flowery remarks welcoming States Parties and others in attendance to the beginning of a week of discussions.  This year that was not the case.  The “good will message” everyone expected was instead an all-out attack on the U.S.

Rather than fulfill her obligation of providing a message of good will, Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs H.E. Claudia Ruiz Massieu used her statement to inform the 109 states, 12 organizations, and 58 NGO’s in attendance that Mexico’s crime problems are the direct result of firearms illegally crossing their northern border.

Seemingly taking her que from Barack Obama’s erroneous assertion that it is “easier for you to buy a handgun and clips than it is for you to buy a fresh vegetable,” Massieu boldly proclaimed that in America “it is easier to acquire a firearm than a liter of milk or a box of cereal.”  Massieu continued to capitalize on her moment in the spotlight by praising “the tenacious and sincere efforts of President Barrack Obama to establish administrative measures to strengthen controls on the possession and sale of weapons” and calling on the U.S. Congress to “ban the sale of assault weapons.”

As Massieu continued with the “good will,” other nations in the room stared at the U.S. delegation in anticipation of their response, especially to Mexico’s assertion that “70%” of the firearms used to commit crimes in Mexico are “related to a buyer or distributor in the United States.”  Regrettably, the eight person U.S. delegation sat idly by in what can only be viewed as a shift in policy towards the Arms Trade Treaty.

Had the U.S. been unaware of the potential for such an attack, one might have attributed that the failure to adequately respond was a result of jet lag, but sources have confirmed to NRA that this was not the case.  While it remains unclear if a copy of the speech was provided to the U.S. delegation, it has been confirmed that Mexico notified the U.S. that Massieu would be addressing U.S. firearms policies in her remarks.  Even more concerning is the tone this inaction set for the remainder of the meeting. The previously unwavering U.S. delegation conceded through silence that Mexico had their facts and figures correct; a premise not lost on many of the delegations in attendance, who were overheard stating just that.

Moreover, American gun owners’ fears were confirmed. Previously, the U.S. attended ATT meetings as the proverbial adult in the room, ensuring treaty negotiations did not devolve any further. Conversely, at this latest meeting, the U.S. offered support and assurances that the country would ratify the ATT at the first available opportunity.

Of further significance is the U.S. delegation’s refusal to recognize a precedent-setting moment in the discussions.  During debate over the ATT’s Voluntary Trust Fund, a bank of voluntary contributions with the purported purpose of assisting “requesting States Parties requiring international assistance to implement th[e] [ATT],” the U.S. agreed and supported a newly-developed reading of the language. This interpretation would allow the Voluntary Trust’s funds to be distributed to not only States Parties, but also to nations who have not yet ratified, let alone signed the ATT.

While seemingly insignificant, this radical reading of the ATT’s text established a dangerous precedent.  Many have argued that gun owners’ fears over the ATT are exaggerated, making note of Article 20’s limitation on amendments to the treaty for the first six years after the ATT has entered force.  However, as this new interpretation of the ATT’s clear and unambiguous language demonstrated, the need for formal amendments is moot. There is no need to wait six years to amend language that says “up” when it can be interpreted to read “down.”

This becomes of even greater concern as those that support the ATT recognize that it contains no mechanism to “name and shame” its signatories.  Despite countless papers and legal studies from ATT proponents arguing that arms sales to Saudi Arabia are causing human suffering in Yemen (a violation of the ATT), the ATT has done nothing to address the issue.

The hard truth for those in support of the ATT is that the current parties to the treaty represent only 40 percent of UN member states, 38 percent of world GDP, and (according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s Arms Transfers Database – 2009-2013) less than 30 percent of global arms exports.  Ignoring those states with export controls that meet or exceed the ATT, the net result is an instrument that has expanded basic export controls to encompass an additional 0 percent of arms exports.  

Accordingly, with no ability to impact big defense transactions, proponents have come to realize that the civilian small arms market is the only area that the ATT can impact.  One need only sit through a few minutes of any ATT meeting to recognize that, despite the ATT covering seven other categories of conventional arms, the only type ever mentioned is SALW (small arms and light weapons).

It is for this reason that the U.S. delegation’s marked shift in position is so significant, and why every American should be concerned with not only their delegation’s open support of the ATT, but their promise that they are working towards ratifying it at the first available opportunity.  Such a flagrant admission would have never occurred just one short year ago.  Whether it is premised on the flawed assumption that Clinton will win in November, or on an effort to change U.S. posture towards the ATT during the waning days of Obama’s presidency, support for a treaty aimed at attacking the Second Amendment is a departure from the civil servants’ oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

The U.S. delegation should work to rectify its recent missteps at the next general meeting on the ATT, The Third Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty.  Once again, the meeting will run the course of a week (11-17 August 2017) in Geneva, Switzerland, and in typical UN fashion, it will be proceeded by a series of working groups and preparatory meetings conveniently interspersed throughout the year in three-hour meeting blocks at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

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