Saturday, July 28, 2012

UN Arms Trade Treaty: A Missed Opportunity

Last night, after month-long talks at the United Nations headquarters in New York, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), otherwise known as the 'small arms treaty,' failed to garner a consensus. In what could have been a foreign policy triumph for the Obama Administration in the midst of his reelection campaign, the negotiations were postponed until the 67th session of the UN in September. The United States, alongside China and Russia, requested more time to consider the implications of the legislation on their sovereignty, effectively putting it off until the fall. As a result of their inaction, the US and the world will face myriad consequences in a time of increased violence, particularly in West and North Africa, and the Middle East.

Photo by Norbert Nagel, Mörfelden-Walldorf, Germany

The potential UN Arms Trade Treaty, an idea first proposed in 2006, ultimately aims to combat the illicit arms trade industry by calling upon signatories to close loopholes in their trade policies that contribute to the multibillion-dollar black market economy. And as Snopes explains, it would not circumvent the second amendment, requiring a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate to be put up for ratification. Even if ratified, the treaty will not directly affect the American people, something that has become a recent fear in conservative circles. Instead, a limitation on arms sales would be sought at the international level. As the global leader in arms exports, the United States in particular would see tighter arms sales restrictions if the treaty were adopted and ratified. Undoubtedly, this could impact the US' ability to influence events abroad, both consciously and unintentionally. 

Aside from the concern over the potential diminishing of US influence abroad, the ATT could not have come up at a more appropriate time in recent years. But in considering the current influx of violence across the world, the failure to reach an agreement on a final resolution in this context is embarrassing. Knowing that arms sales inevitably spill over into the black market, and that the US and Russia are 'aiding' rebel and Syrian forces (respectively), a collective decision was greatly needed to set a precedent against irresponsible arms dealings. A resolution would have also sent a clear message to perpetuators of violence around the world: the international community is committed to stifling the resources that undermine democracy and the rule of law.

What's also disconcerting about the collapse of an arms treaty the world so desperately needs is the message inaction sends to oppressive governments, refugees and other victims of armed conflict. Today's events can only embolden President Assad and other such tyrants as they watch the highest international body deadlocked in an arms treaty in the General Assembly, unable to come to an agreement. Refugees and other displaced peoples are cruelly relegated to the status of collateral damage on the Security Council's chessboard, as its permanent members have a history of destabilizing arms sales that reflect the economic value of such shady dealings. If we can't stop profitting off of armed conflict now and commit to tighter legislation on the import and export of arms materials, when will we? When the domestic political forecast has tempered? 

Perhaps the Obama Administration is serious about reviewing the ATT's practical application, exercising healthy caution on the campaign trail. However, given the domestic backlash of supporting a two-state solution in Israel based on the pre-1967 borders, signing the Arms Trade Treaty would allow the United States to better posture itself in the realm of foreign policy. Ratification of the treaty could also give Obama another dimension to his approach to combatting terrorism abroad without increasing military spending, as illicit weapons often end up in the hands of organized criminals and terrorists. And yet, despite the potential rewards for signing the treaty, the US will most likely put it off until the political timing is right and/or when the presidential elections are over. Right now, domestic politics trump foreign policy for the Obama Administration amidst a civil war in Syria, chaos in Mali, suppression of popular protests across the Middle East and political transformations in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Morocco. I wouldn't call it the best time for the world's superpower to turn completely inward. 

Don't bet on September's UN session to go much differently, unless the US and other great powers rethink the benefits of multilateral negotiation when the world needs it most, and if Obama's reelection team decides that a foreign policy victory is good for their campaign. Let us also hope that the world's leaders will see the wisdom in the long-term effects the ATT will have: less global insecurity. 

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