Killing the Arms Trade Treaty

by Benjamin Studebaker

Back in May I noticed that Rand Paul has joined forces with the gun lobby to frighten American gun owners into opposing the UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). Today it would appear that their efforts are succeeding. The Obama administration has declined to participate in today’s signing, which features at least 60 states, including major arms exporters like Germany, France, and Britain. In addition, the senate has approved a symbolic measure indicating opposition to the ATT by a vote of 53-46, with 8 democrats joining the entirety of the republican delegation. This disgusts me. Here’s why.

Back in April, when the ATT was voted for at the UN, here’s how the vote went:

Here’s what the colors mean:

  • Green–voted in favor.
  • Red–voted against.
  • Yellow–abstained.
  • Blue–absent.

So all of the republican senators and 8 of the democratic ones want us to join forces with Syria, Iran, and North Korea on this issue? Even the abstention crowd is not one I’d be too excited to join, especially if I were a republican senator–Cuba? North Sudan? Burma? This is not a great crowd by US foreign policy standards.

Of course, we can’t argue in favor of the ATT just by appealing to who is for it or against it. What kinds of justifications do US congressmen give for opposing the treaty? We picked Rand Paul apart last time, but perhaps some of the others have better reasons?

US Representative Steve Stockman (R-Texas):

The right to keep and bear arms is granted by God and protecting from government aggression by the Constitution.  It is not subject to the whims of global totalitarians massed in New York City. I oppose any UN treaty touching the right to keep and bear arms.  It’s beyond time for the United States to withdraw from the UN.

I know of no place in any holy book where one can find any line that expresses a right to have guns–by definition, there were no guns at the time the various holy books were written. If you know a verse that says “thou shalt not deprive the people of thy spears”, perhaps we could extrapolate, but I don’t think anything like that exists, either. American gun rights were created by Americans through the legal system and have no supernatural backing, no matter your religious views. They are dependent upon the continual support of that legal system.

Nevertheless, it’s a moot point. The ATT has absolutely nothing to do with domestic US second amendment rights. The ATT contains this language:

The inherent right of all States to individual or collective self-defence as
recognized in Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations;

Non-intervention in matters which are essentially within the domestic
jurisdiction of any State in accordance with Article 2 (7) of the Charter of the
United Nations;

Article 51 says this:

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence…

Article 2(7) says this:

Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.

Stockman’s argument is not merely wrong, it has absolutely nothing to do with the treaty it is being used to oppose. This is a treaty about preventing weapons from being exported to conflict zones where they might be used to commit what the UN describes as “crimes against humanity”–things like genocide. Unless there’s some reason to believe that American gun owners want to use the guns they import to commit crimes against humanity, there is absolutely nothing for them to fear in this treaty. The only conceivable reason for opposing this treaty is the gun lobby, and the only reason the gun lobby opposes this treaty is because it desires to war profiteer–to make money off of the horrific violence that occurs in places like Sudan or the Congo.

This is from Stockman’s own website. He is proud of this argument. He is pleased to defend the rights of gun manufacturers to profit from genocide. He is not the only one. Stockman has signed a letter along with 130 other members of the US congress. You can read that letter here. The letter gives more reasons for opposing the treaty:

It includes only a weak preambular reference to the lawful ownership and use of, and trade in, firearms, and recognizes none of these activities, or personal self-defense, as inherent rights.

So because this treaty does not introduce a global version of the second amendment, it doesn’t sufficiently defend gun rights? There are many, many countries being asked to sign this treaty that do not have any gun rights at all. Japan’s constitution expressly bans individual ownership of guns and swords, allowing only exceptions to that general rule. It would be utterly mad for the UN to attempt to prescribe some version of the second amendment to the entire global community. Huge numbers of countries would never vote for that. Furthermore, the UN charter does protect individual self-defense in Article 51! They’re being extraordinarily unreasonable. But there’s more:

It frequently employs the term “end users”, which can refer to individual firearms owners, and in its sixth principle, it creates a national “responsibility” to “prevent…diversion” of firearms, a requirement that could be used to justify the imposition of further controls within the United States.

Well, no. Unless the “end users” are committing war crimes, they’re not included in the trade ban. And Article 2(7) ensures that the UN will not meddle in the domestic jurisdiction of the US. The UN cannot make the US government ban firearms. The most it could do is determine US gun owners to be guilty of crimes against humanity and bar foreign countries from exporting guns to the United States. US gun owners constantly talk about how responsible and not crazy they are, so why would they worry about being labelled war criminals? And furthermore, even in this scenario, the UN could not compel the United States to do anything regarding its domestic arms trade–the allegedly war criminal gun owners could still manufacture guns in the United States for sale within the United States. And there’s more:

We are also profoundly dissatisfied that the treaty, in Article 20.3, allows amendments by a three-quarters majority vote. We note that Article 20.4 makes it clear that amendments are only binding on those nations that accept them, but we do not regard this as an adequate safeguard.

Our senate can’t get a 60% majority to pass anything, much less 75%. And furthermore, as admitted in the letter, the United States would never be bound by any amendment it didn’t accept! This is equivalent to 75% of US states agreeing to a constitutional amendment with the other 25% being permitted to ignore it–it’s extraordinarily loose! The notion that this could be grounds for opposing the treaty is madness.

The letter then goes on to denounce the treaty for “vagueness”. What are the words and phrases considered vague?

  • “International human rights law”–apparently it’s impossible to know whether or not an arms purchaser is violating those laws. In order for this to be true, international human rights law would itself have to be indecipherable. It isn’t, and the US government has been deeply involved in the writing of all of it.
  • “Knowledge”–the treaty specifies that states aren’t supposed to export weapons to places where they have knowledge that they will be used to violate international human rights law. The letter seems to think that “knowledge” could mean anything, but it’s actually a fairly strict epistemic standard–it’s quite hard to prove that anyone has “knowledge” of anything. What other, more permissive word could the treaty have used? The letter, of course, doesn’t say.

The last argument the treaty makes? Apparently Hillary Clinton at one point in time argued that the treaty should be agreed to by universal consensus, but instead a UN General Assembly vote was adopted. According to the letter, Clinton’s statement constitutes a “red line”, and to approve the treaty despite this violation weakens America. Clinton never used the phrase “red line” or made any ultimatums, and while it would be preferable if all the countries had agreed to the treaty, there is no reason to suppose that adoption by most countries is not an improvement over a situation in which no countries had agreed to anything like this, despite decades of negotiation.

These arguments against the ATT are dismal. The 130 members of congress who signed the letter in opposition to the ATT are unworthy of governance–the full list of signers is included in the letter. Michele Bachmann is among them.

In closing, I want to be clear about precisely what this is, what is happening here. You have 130 members of congress, 53 senators, including 8 democrats, who have been purchased by the gun lobby to defend not the rights of gun owners, but the profit margins of gun manufacturers, who profiteer off of the suffering and misery of the conflicts they fuel and perpetuate. These people are actively participating in genocide, ethnic cleansing, civil wars, and so on, in exchange for money, and they have used that money to buy the support of members of the government, members that have been elected and re-elected many times, and will likely continue to be re-elected in large numbers, by a population that aids and abets all of this through its ignorance and its inability to realize what is really happening here, an inability that can only be understood as indifference, as gross negligence. And rather than recognize that the people as a group are not capable of managing this, of paying close enough attention to deter this kind of behavior, we continue to justify it by claiming that this is “democracy”. If democracy means the people just allow private interests to run amok and buy the operators of the levers of the state for their own purposes, it produces outcomes so egregious as to fail to self-justify.