Arms Trade Treaty: Keeping weapons from terrorists and human rights abusers

“Such a treaty would promote global security, it would advance important humanitarian objectives, and it would affirm the legitimacy of the international trade in conventional arms,” Thomas M. Countryman, assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of State, told reporters a few days before the vote on the U.S. co-sponsored General Assembly resolution.

“Over two weeks of hard negotiations we reached a text that was meaningful, that was implementable, a text that did not touch in any way upon the Constitutional rights of American citizens, a text that the United States could support.”

The treaty text will now be reviewed by relevant government stakeholders, before going to President Barack Obama for signature and then the U.S. Senate, where it will require a two-thirds majority to be ratified.

So who would oppose such a successful U.S. foreign policy initiative? North Korea, Iran and Syria were alone in voting against it in the U.N. General Assembly. But they were joined in their condemnation by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and 53 U.S. senators, mostly Republicans, who voted for a James Inhofe (R-Okla.)-sponsored nonbinding amendment casting the ATT as a threat to the Constitution’s Second Amendment.

But the senators’ fears, if genuine, are simply misplaced. The treaty explicitly affirms governments’ sovereign rights to regulate “lawful ownership” of guns in accordance with their “own legal or constitutional system”, as well as the legitimacy of use for “recreational, cultural, historical, and sporting activities.”

“I would much rather be on the opposite side of Syria, Iran, and DPRK than join them in criticism of this treaty,” said Countryman, when asked about NRA opposition to the ATT.

The American Bar Association reviewed the treaty draft in February and concluded that “the proposed ATT is consistent with the Second Amendment” as interpreted by the courts and that it “would not require new domestic regulations of firearms.”

Politicians’ position on domestic gun control should thus be independent of their position on the ATT. What is causing the gun lobby to conflate the two issues? Why oppose a treaty that prevents narcotraffickers from buying assault rifles, while also respecting the Second Amendment?

One possible explanation is that the gun lobby’s delusional propaganda about the ATT (which often contradicts its positions on domestic gun control) is simply about firing up support from a xenophobic and paranoid base.

But that can’t be the whole explanation, as it is unlikely that the majority of the U.S. Senate shares such a radical right wing perspective. Indeed, most Americans don’t; according to a February PPP poll, NRA support is a political liability for electoral candidates.

A few simple statistics offer some hints. Forty out of the 53 senators who voted in favor of the Inhofe anti-ATT amendment received campaign contributions from the NRA in the last three elections, compared with four who voted against. The average total of contributions to Senators in favor was $5,852, $589 for those against.

As a result, we have a Senate that seems more likely to seek foreign policy counsel from an ideologically reactionary lobby than its own State Department, all of its NATO allies, 18 Nobel Peace Laureates, the human rights and humanitarian community, faith leaders and the Red Cross.

In opposing U.S. efforts to keep weapons from terrorists and human rights abusers, the gun lobby is short-circuiting national security policymaking and undermining an initiative that could save the lives not only of Americans, but people around the world.

Bolton is assistant professor of political science at Pace University in New York City. He is author of “Foreign Aid and Landmine Clearance” and researches the humanitarian impact of conventional weapons. He has worked in over a dozen countries as an aid worker, journalist and researcher, including in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Sudan and South Sudan.

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