There is plenty of blame to go around for the failure to seal the deal on a long-awaited treaty to regulate the sale of conventional weapons, but the Obama administration and the National Rifle Association deserve the lion’s share. The Obama administration, which has supported the treaty for years, walked away at the eleventh hour after the NRA claimed that the treaty would threaten the right to bear arms in the United States.
Those claims are patently false. But instead of pushing back, administration officials caved, saying they needed more time to examine the treaty’s language. While it is true that the treaty’s final text was being tweaked up until the final day of negotiations, many UN diplomats felt that, after six years of talks and one month of face-to-face negotiations among 193 countries, they were on the verge of an historic breakthrough when the United States pulled the plug.
Ninety countries were so shocked by the about-face that they signed on to a statement expressing their disappointment. Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Amnesty International USA, accused the administration of “stunning cowardice” — an especially scathing criticism from someone who has recently worked for Obama’s State Department.
It seems clear the administration foresaw the political havoc that the NRA and Republicans in Congress would wreak and decided to kick the can down the road in a high-stakes election year. But the NRA also deserves much blame for willfully twisting of the truth.
Contrary to their claims, the treaty applies to the sale of arms internationally, not to domestic sales. Since the United States already has some of the strictest arms export controls in the world, the treaty would have almost no impact on arms sales here. US law already requires export licenses for the international sale of tanks, attack helicopters, and semi-automatic weapons. The approval process for licenses already requires that the human rights record of the arms purchaser be taken into account. So the treaty’s main purpose is to bring the rest of the world — especially private arms exporters in Russia and China — in line with what the United States already does. The only change here would be a requirement for US officials to report arms sales to a new monitoring body at the United Nations.
To be sure, the current draft of the treaty isn’t perfect. It still gives countries wide latitude to determine whether there is an “overriding risk” that weapons would be used in “serious” human rights violations such as genocide and crimes against humanity. For now, that leeway is a good thing. It preserves the ability of the United States to continue to sell weapons to allies like Bahrain and Egypt even though some international actors might argue there is a risk that the weapons could be used to violate human rights. Tear gas against protesters doesn’t rise to the level of “serious” violations such as crimes against humanity or genocide. And in the case of Israel, weapons used in self-defense against militants also would not apply.
But the treaty would come into effect in the most egregious circumstances. If it had been passed and ratified years ago, it would be illegal for Russia to sell weapons to the Assad regime in Syria, or for China to sell to President Omar al-Bashir’s government in Sudan. For many African states on the frontlines of guerrilla wars, the treaty is the only hope for stopping unscrupulous arms dealers from taking advantage of human misery.
So it’s a shame that five Democrats and 46 Republican senators — including Olympia Snowe of Maine and Kelly Ayotte of New Hamphire — urged Obama to walk away from the treaty due to “grave concern about the dangers posed” to the right of Americans to bear arms. They have yet to provide a credible explanation for how that could be true. (Neither office, nor the NRA, responded to requests for an explanation.)
After the senators sent their letter, talks closed two weeks ago with a mere promise to take up the matter next year. That’s a testament to how destructive America’s dysfunctional politics can be.