An Arms Trade Treaty makes sense for US interests

Efforts to regulate the international arms trade are certainly not new, but they received a boost in 2009 when the United States voted in favor of supporting a U.N. process on the Arms Trade Treaty that in Secretary Clinton’s words “presents us with the opportunity to promote the same high standards for the entire international community that the United States and other responsible arms exporters already have in place to ensure that weaponry is transferred for legitimate purposes.”

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Since then, that effort has since picked up steam and just last month the five permanent members of the Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) issued their first joint statement supporting the ATT process. No text yet exists and some dissenters in the United States have mislabeled this the “Small Arms Treaty,” but a good treaty will encompass all conventional weapons, be they large or small, of longstanding or cutting edge design.

The United States, the world’s top arms producer, stands to gain by the establishment of tough and responsible global arms trade rules and has long recognized the national security risks inherent in today’s porous international arms trade system. Benefits of a strong ATT include curtailing the supply of weapons to terrorists and others who seek to harm the United States and its allies; improved security for peace-keepers, peace-building, and economic and social development efforts that enhance stability and good governance; stronger international embargoes; and avoidance of destabilizing accumulations of arms that inflame regional conflicts.

A robust treaty will make it harder to arm regimes that divert weapons, disregard human rights and violate international humanitarian law. At a human level, it will lessen the real suffering caused by the irresponsible and illicit arms trade, which is why civil society organizations across the globe associated with the Control Arms coalition are pressing for a treaty that respects this humanitarian imperative.

The treaty also makes businesses sense. An ATT with clear criteria that defines what is responsible trade will contribute to harmonizing regulatory approaches and leveling the playing field for those engaged in that trade. Unlike in Europe, where aerospace and defense industry leaders have spoken out on the benefits of an Arms Trade Treaty, American leaders have been relatively quiet. That should change. Advocates of a robust treaty insist that it must cover the entirety of the arms production process, including parts and components, technology transfer and licensed production. Industry clearly has expertise to offer on these topics and must be involved in implementing the treaty for it to work at a practical level.

Those who financially support the arms trade should, and now are, making the case for the treaty. Recently, a group of 21 global investors who collectively own or manage $1.2 trillion in assets issued a statement calling for a strong, legally binding and comprehensive ATT. They, and assuredly more groups who control the flow of capital, recognize that there are reputational risks associated with the arms trade.

Absent an agreed norm for responsible trade that an ATT could provide, it is more difficult to make appropriate investments. At an even more basic level, irresponsible arms trade contributes to conflict and instability, thereby dampening economic growth and development.  

Although details need to be worked out, it is clear that the ATT will focus on the international trade in weapons, not internal ownership. It is also clear that arms transfer decisions will remain national decisions.

Recently, U.S. skeptics have raised the specter of the ATT infringing on the Second Amendment. This is an unnecessary distraction. The 2010 General Assembly resolution authorizing current work on the treaty explicitly acknowledges “the right of States to regulate internal transfers of arms and national ownership, including through national constitutional protections on private ownership, exclusively within their territory.”

 The authority of the United States and its constitution will not be called into question by the eventual Arms Trade Treaty. Instead of being sidetracked by what the treaty is not, now we need to roll up our sleeves and make sure a strong text is negotiated.

It is time for those invested in the defense industries to engage more deeply and get onboard. A robust Arms Trade Treaty would be a dramatic step forward in providing clarity for those promoting responsible defense trade and a boon to the related national security interests of keeping weapons out of the hands of terrorists, human rights abusers, and those who perpetuate conflict and undermine development.

Jeff Abramson is coordinator of the Control Arms Secretariat. Control Arms is a global civil society alliance campaigning for an Arms Trade Treaty that will protect lives and livelihoods.



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