As U.N. Finalizes Arms Trade Treaty, Opponents Warn of Global Gun Grab

Patrick Goodenough | July 5, 2012 | 4:56am EDT
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Kalashnikov rifles and ammunition on sale at a Mogadishu market in May 2011. (AP Photo)

( – Amid energetic lobbying from both sides, the Obama administration is taking part in month-long negotiations at United Nations headquarters aimed at finalizing a conventional arms trade treaty, which supporters say will save millions of lives but opponents fear threatens to restrict Second Amendment rights at home and U.S. arms sales policies abroad.

U.N. bureaucrats insist that the U.N. Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) will have no impact on civilian gun ownership, saying that it will deal only with the arms trade across borders. They also stress that its outcome will not be imposed on any country, noting it will only be binding on countries that ratify it.

In a letter to Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the eve of the conference, 130 Republican lawmakers outlined their concerns that the treaty being negotiated could negatively affect U.S. security, foreign policy and economic interests – as well as Americans’ constitutional rights.

“The ATT must not accept that free democracies and totalitarian regimes have the same right to conduct arms transfers: this is a dangerous piece of moral equivalence,” the letter stated.

“Moreover, the ATT must not impose criteria for determining the permissibility of arms transfers that are vague, easily politicized, and readily manipulated,” it continued, referring in particular to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and Israel.

The lawmakers warned that they would oppose the appropriation or authorization of any taxpayer money to implement a “flawed” treaty.

The Bush administration in 2006 cast the lone negative vote when 153 nations passed a U.N. General Assembly resolution that began the treaty-drafting process, which is now in its final phase in New York. President Obama reversed that position in 2009, backing the initiative but making its support conditional on consensus decision-making.

The “Knotted Gun” sculpture, by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reutersward, on display at the Visitors’ Plaza at U.N. headquarters in New York. (UN Photo by Rick Bajornas)

Alert to the political sensitivity of the issue as the election looms, the administration says it has clear red lines that it will not allow to be crossed.

At home, it says, the Second Amendment must be upheld: “There will be no dilution or diminishing of sovereign control over issues involving the private acquisition, ownership, or possession of firearms, which must remain matters of domestic law.”

Abroad, the U.S. will oppose any provisions that would “unduly interfere with our ability to import, export, or transfer arms in support of our national security and foreign policy interests,” it says.

Further, the administration pledges not to accept a treaty that covers ammunition or explosives, or one that establishes an international enforcement body.

Some of Washington’s closest allies differ with at least some of those positions.

For example the British, French, German and Swedish governments in a joint position published this week said, “We believe that an arms trade treaty should cover all types of conventional weapons, notably including small arms and light weapons, all types of munitions, and related technologies.”

Britain, France and Germany are among the world’s top six arms suppliers, along with the United States – the leader by far – as well as China and Russia.

A powerful coalition of non-governmental organizations including Amnesty International and Oxfam says the negotiated treaty must be workable and enforceable, with international reporting of sales and a mechanism for monitoring compliance.

On the issue of consensus, the Control Arms coalition also wants the conference to follow usual U.N. practice, requiring “wide agreement” on a final text but not giving countries veto power.

‘Goal is clear: A robust and legally-binding arms trade treaty’

The month-long negotiating conference got off to a slow start this week after demands by Arab states that the Palestinian Authority be allowed to participate as a voting delegate, citing the precedent set by UNESCO in admitting “Palestine” as a full member nine months ago. After reported boycott threats by the U.S. and Israel, the P.A. was seated as an observer, without voting rights.

In his opening remarks, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said poorly-regulated international arms transfers fuel civil conflicts, destabilized regions, and empowered terrorists and criminal networks.

“Our common goal is clear: a robust and legally-binding arms trade treaty that will have a real impact on the lives of those millions of people suffering from the consequences of armed conflict, repression and armed violence,” he said.

One of the key issues under discussion is criteria that should be met when countries decide on selling arms. Any deal that would contribute to war crimes, human rights violations or terrorism should not be authorized, although who would make such determinations remains fuzzy.

If left up to countries themselves, argue proponents of a strong treaty, this would allow Russia, for example, to continue selling arms to Syria since Moscow views the regime’s actions against the anti-Assad opposition as lawful.

Arms Control Association executive director Daryl Kimball argued in a recent paper that the treaty must require countries to withhold problematic arms transfers, not merely require them to take any potential risks into account.

On the other hand, global regulation of sales could impact the right of the U.S. to sell arms to allies that have powerful enemies in the international community, such as Israel and Taiwan.

“Washington is the only capital that now sells weapons to Taipei, aiding its defense against Beijing’s unprecedented arms buildup,” Heritage Foundation senior fellow Peter Brookes wrote in an op-ed Tuesday. “China would love to cut off those sales.”

Also unclear is how arms sales benefiting terrorists would be restricted, given the U.N.’s failure over many years to define terrorism – largely because Arab and Muslim states insist on exclusions for those fighting “foreign occupation.”

Less controversial proposed criteria for arms sales include not fostering corruption or harming the economy of the country buying the weapons.

ATT proponents and the U.N. say the initiative will not affect domestic gun ownership, but Second Amendment advocacy groups are adamantly opposed to the treaty, which Gun Owners of America calls “a backdoor attempt by the Obama administration to impose radical gun control on America citizens.”

Addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference last February, National Rifle Association vice-president Wayne LaPierre accused Obama of working behind the scenes with the U.N. on a “treaty that could effectively ban or severely restrict civilian ownership of firearms worldwide.”

“I've been around long enough to know that the U.N. has little regard for our Constitution and none at all for the Second Amendment,” LaPierre said. “But I never thought I’d see the day when an American White House would tolerate a proposal that would literally gut one of our most fundamental freedoms in this country.”

Last March Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) introduced legislation prohibiting any funds for negotiating an ATT that would restrict U.S. citizens’ Second Amendment rights. The bill has 19 co-sponsors, all Republicans.

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