The UN-sponsored Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is being negotiated and finalized this month. Adding spice to the proceedings is the election of Iran – yes, Iran – to the 15-member governing body overseeing the treaty draft. Who wouldn’t want Iran coming up with ways to control America’s trade in arms, after all?
Kim Holmes of the Heritage Foundation critiqued the extant draft of the treaty in the Washington Times on 11 July, pointing out, essentially, that its language will work to the advantage of whoever has the most popular cause in the UN. Russia and China, for example, could justify all their arms sales under the category of national security, whereas the US could be charged with “keeping conflicts going” by selling arms to Taiwan or Israel (or Japan or the UK, for that matter).
She also makes the case that the mere existence of the treaty, even if the US Senate doesn’t ratify it, will provide a ready slate of off-the-shelf provisions for Congress to incorporate into US law. Other commentators have pointed out that Obama could, in theory, sign the treaty and develop executive-agency enforcement procedures against the US arms industry and American gun-owners, which Congress would have difficulty preventing.
Executive “initiative” has been a common practice of the Obama administration, and in the case of the drilling moratorium, was adhered to in the face of court orders to cease and desist. A great deal of the traditional strength of checks and balances has been undermined during the Obama administration. It is sensible to be concerned about unilateral “enforcement” of the Arms Trade Treaty by the Obama executive. Court challenges might well not be dealt with before the end of Obama’s term.
Heritage analyst Ted Bromund testified at the Arms Trade Treaty Conference on 11 July, making the following points:
Supporters of the ATT argue that we need it to raise national standards on the import, export, and transfer of arms. But if any nation wishes to raise its standards, it is free to do so now. The fact is that many U.N. member states have neither the desire nor the ability to raise their standards. A treaty will not compel or enable them to do so.
The U.N. Security Council has adopted embargoes against the shipment of arms to particular nations. It has called on all U.N. member states to eliminate the supply of arms to terrorists. These embargoes and resolutions are regularly violated.
The ATT’s proponents claim that this is why we need the ATT. But it is a fantasy to believe that a universal ATT, backed by nothing more than the words of the treaty itself, will succeed where the Security Council, backed by the authority of Chapter 7 [of the U.N. charter], has failed.
The ATT will not limit the ability of terrorists to acquire arms. The reason for this is simple: The U.N. has never defined terrorism, because some member states insist that terrorist groups like Hamas are struggling against so-called foreign occupation.A key point from both Bromund and Holmes is that the treaty will merely be an excuse for selective, politically motivated attacks on some member states (and possibly populations, such as US gun owners). The treaty’s consequences will depend entirely on how it’s enforced, since none of its meanings or definitions is precise or ironclad. Iran, for example, on being elected to her new dignities, promptly clarified (euphemistically, but intelligibly) that the Arms Trade Treaty should not restrain Iran’s ability to acquire nuclear weapons.
This is an idiotic treaty: one which our enemies could use to claim – before the World Court, presumably – that the US is promoting violence and instability, but which will not be interpreted to restrict the kinds of weapons radical Iran can buy or sell. Indeed, Iran’s position seems to be that the treaty should “urge member states to avoid resorting to any kind of aggressive measures against other member states,” which would be well outside the purpose or scope of this treaty, and suggests that separate political motives are the main thing going on with Iran’s participation in drafting it.
Maybe we can trust Russia and China not to sign up for this thing. At any rate, as a practical matter for American life in the next six months, the question for us is what Obama will do.
I find it hard to predict. Obama has gone so far from the mainstream of US politics in the last year that it’s hardly out of the question that he might sign the treaty at the end of the summer, and perhaps even implement enforcement measures of some kind in the US. I doubt that such enforcement would include the “nightmare” gun-grabbing scenarios described at many websites; I think it would probably be limited to increased regulation of firearm manufacturers and vendors, at least for now. But Obama has doubled down on a lot of things that most Americans would have considered unthinkable four years ago. It’s not credible to insist that he wouldn’t take executive action unilaterally.
But it’s still a question. Practical politics says you don’t provoke gun owners just before your next election. The National Rifle Association is still one of the handful of groups that can seriously clobber the halls of government with a citizen outcry. I’m not sure anything would galvanize voters as much as Obama signing the Arms Trade Treaty; not only could it determine Obama’s fate in November, but it could well affect the outcomes in Congressional and state races as well.
It’s an important question how well Obama understands the firestorm, and the reaction from other branches and levels of government, that he would stir up by signing the treaty. The right to bear arms is one of the very few that citizens still generally interpret the same way, can locate in the US Constitution, and – whether they are for it or against it – understand to be a uniquely American guarantee.
I believe the meaning of our Second Amendment rights is more solidly understood by the populace than even our right to freedom of religion. Only the freedoms of speech, press, and religion – and the right to remain silent – are as sacred and identifiable to most Americans as the right to bear arms. I know Obama and his advisors move in a climate of urban-elite leftism, but it would be remarkable if they were so out of touch as to dismiss the electoral significance of appearing to override the Second Amendment.
The administration hasn’t even made a concerted public case for the treaty – an onslaught of soundbites and narratives – as it has with other plans for regulation like Obamacare, “net neutrality,” and environmental regulations. Maybe it has felt that that would be impolitic. If so, perhaps that excellent instinct for political self-preservation will induce Obama to shelve this one until after the election.
What say you, readers?
J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,” Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.