We've detected an outdated browser.

You may want to consider updating your browser. International Policy Digest requires a modern browser in order to view the website properly.

Click here for information on how to update your browser.

Continue Anyways

UN Arms Trade Treaty faces an Uncertain Future

UN Arms Trade Treaty faces an Uncertain Future

Gage Skidmore

Gage Skidmore

In 2010 the Obama administration reversed the official policy of the U.S. and offered its support to a Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty, which would spell out the details of a UN Arms Trade Treaty. However, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered a caveat. The U.S. would support the talks as long as they operated on consensus. Clinton said at the time that the talks must operate “under the rules of consensus decision-making…Consensus is needed to ensure the widest possible support for the Treaty and to avoid loopholes in the Treaty that can be exploited by those wishing to export arms irresponsibly.”

Because a number of states on the UN Security Council also happen to be large arms exporters the guidelines offered by the U.S. could provide Russia and China the ability to veto any final Treaty if they view the Treaty as detrimental to their ability to continue to export significant amounts of small arms to other countries. Debbie Hillier of Oxfam International said at the time, “Governments must resist US demands to give any single state the power to veto the treaty as this could hold the process hostage during the course of negotiations. We call on all governments to reject such a veto clause.”

Second Amendment advocates would argue that, if passed, the Treaty would allow the Obama administration to circumvent the Second Amendment and apply strict international gun control standards on American citizens. Opponents to any Treaty also export the argument that this will allow not just the Obama administration to usurp the Second Amendment but it will allow the UN to control who own firearms domestically in the U.S. Supporters of the Treaty would counter that it is an attempt to address the millions of firearms floating around conflict-ridden regions.

This new policy overturns the position of the Bush administration that argued that national controls of the export of small arms is more effective than any international controls. Oxfam and Amnesty International released a statement concurring with the Obama administration’s policy decision, “The shift in position by the world’s biggest arms exporter is a major breakthrough in launching formal negotiations at the United Nations in order to prevent irresponsible arms transfers.”

In order to undercut the Treaty and makes its passage unlikely in the U.S. Senate, opponents argue that a UN Arms Trade Treaty is an assault on the U.S. Constitution. The Washington Times editorialized “American gun owners might not feel besieged, but they should. This week, the Obama administration announced its support for the United Nations Small Arms Treaty. This international agreement poses real risks for freedom both in the United States and around the world by making it more difficult - if not outright illegal - for law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms.”

It is doubtful that the Treaty will come to fruition because of the economics of arms sales. Further, it is highly doubtful that the Treaty would pass in the U.S. Senate where there is little appetite for domestic gun control laws let alone small arms control mechanisms manifested in a UN Treaty.

The arguments against a UN Arms Trade Treaty generally ignore one important fact about the relationship between the UN and state sovereignty. Except in rare circumstances, the Libyan no-fly zone and the 1991 Gulf War, the UN does not have jurisdiction over states. In Article 2 (7) of the UN Charter, “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 or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter; but this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter Vll.”

A UN Arms Trade Treaty, if passed, would set standards of conventional small arms and the export, import and transfer of these weapons. Supporters of the Treaty claim that there are enormous gaps in the control and the export of small arms and arms dealers and brokers exploit these loopholes in an effort to sell weapons to customers abroad. Additionally, supporters of the Treaty claim that these export control gaps are exploitable and there is a need to address this. The Treaty would establish set guidelines for the export of small arms that nations would be obliged to follow as established by the UN.

Signatories to the UN Arms Trade Treaty would continue to negotiate their own arms export agreements. However, each nation would need to evaluate how the export deal meets the standards agreed upon in the new Treaty. Governments would be required to notify the UN in writing prior to the transfer of any small arms. Supporters of an approach to address global loopholes in arms controls mechanisms argue that arms dealers and brokers are adept at manipulation for their own gains.

Since the end of the Cold War, the international system has been flooded with Soviet era weapons from Eastern Europe that arms traffickers have been able to export abroad from Sub-Saharan Africa to the Balkans. Arms dealers trafficking in small arms have been able to exploit arms embargoes by simply falsifying end-user certificates (EUC). A UN Treaty would attempt to address these loopholes. In order to ship lethal weapons an EUC must be provided to prove that the weapons are not simply being transferred from one buyer to another.

Despite the positive effects of any final Treaty, it is likely to face an uphill battle due to U.S. domestic opposition, in particular, from the National Rifle Association and other Second Amendment advocates. In arguing against this international initiative, the NRA argues, “The NRA has been engaged at the United Nations and elsewhere internationally in response to anti-small arms initiatives for over 14 years. In most cases, agendas for the elimination of private ownership of firearms are disguised as calls for international arms control to stem the flow of illicit military weapons.”

A UN Treaty would leave efforts to legislate domestic ownership of firearms largely in the purview of member states. In particular, the UN would not address oversight of the thousands of gun shops here in the U.S. Furthermore, the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs argues, “Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has identified as a ‘recurring problem’ the absence of a normative framework for all states to guide decisions regarding arms transfers. He underlined that regional examples of such agreed standards have proven useful in preventing the transfer of arms to areas of conflict or repressive governments.”

Arguments by the NRA and other Second Amendment enthusiasts are perhaps disingenuous. They have been able to manufacture the belief that UN efforts to monitor the traffic of firearms abroad is an attempt to regulate domestic ownership of firearms in the United States, although they are aware that the UN does not have a mandate over domestic U.S. laws concerning firearms. Debate over any final UN Treaty will inevitably culminate in just a debate. The Treaty faces an uphill battle in the U.S. Senate where Second Amendment supporters outnumber gun control advocates. Also, despite a change in official U.S. policy, it is not at all clear how far President Obama is willing to go in support of any Treaty. In order for it to pass the U.S. Senate Obama would have to spend a considerable amount of political capital, which at present, he might not be willing to do.