The Multilateralist

Activists and accuracy

Arms expert Rachel Stohl had a piece in the New York Times last week chiding the administration for its mixed signals on whether President Obama would sign the brand new Arms Trade Treaty. In the course of the piece, she whacks U.S. gun rights activists for their distortions of the treaty: Those opposed to the ...

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Control Arms

Arms expert Rachel Stohl had a piece in the New York Times last week chiding the administration for its mixed signals on whether President Obama would sign the brand new Arms Trade Treaty. In the course of the piece, she whacks U.S. gun rights activists for their distortions of the treaty:

Those opposed to the accord have misrepresented what it does, suggesting that it would somehow infringe on American gun owners’ rights. It would do nothing of the kind.

The treaty applies only to international transfers of conventional arms and, in fact, reaffirms “the sovereign right of any State to regulate and control conventional arms” within its territory. The treaty’s preamble also makes specific reference to the legitimate trade, lawful ownership and use of certain conventional arms for recreational, cultural, historical and sporting activities.

Arms expert Rachel Stohl had a piece in the New York Times last week chiding the administration for its mixed signals on whether President Obama would sign the brand new Arms Trade Treaty. In the course of the piece, she whacks U.S. gun rights activists for their distortions of the treaty:

Those opposed to the accord have misrepresented what it does, suggesting that it would somehow infringe on American gun owners’ rights. It would do nothing of the kind.

The treaty applies only to international transfers of conventional arms and, in fact, reaffirms “the sovereign right of any State to regulate and control conventional arms” within its territory. The treaty’s preamble also makes specific reference to the legitimate trade, lawful ownership and use of certain conventional arms for recreational, cultural, historical and sporting activities.

She’s right of course. But I’d argue that many of the activists working on this issue have been guilty of their own exaggerations. Specifically, their public statements have repeatedly suggested that the treaty will change state behavior. Stohl is quite careful in her piece not to make grand claims. Others have been less circumspect. Amnesty International called the treaty "lifesaving." Oxfam official Anna McDonald was even more effusive:

From the streets of Latin America, to the camps in eastern Congo, to the valleys of Afghanistan, communities living in fear of attacks because of the unregulated arms trade can now hope for a safer future. The world will be a more secure place to live once the Treaty is in place.

It’s not obvious why we should expect significant change in any of these places. The treaty allows each state to decide if and when an arms transfer might facilitate human rights abuses. No external actor reviews those decisions. Even if it were to join the treaty, Russia could decide that sending arms to the Syrian regime doesn’t violate the treaty’s terms. Washington can determine that it’s within its rights to ship arms to Bahrain or even the fragile government in Mogadishu. And on and on. It seems quite plausible that states will make the same decisions they are making now.

The arms trade treaty is really just the latest in a series of human rights treaties with no enforcement mechanisms. And the jury is very much out on whether this kind of "soft law" is effective. In a famous study, Yale law professor Oona Hathaway found that human rights treaties had very little effect on state behavior. Non-democratic states were particularly impervious to their effects. She identified "not a single treaty for which ratification seems to be reliably associated with better human rights practices and several for which it appears to be associated with worse practices." Some scholars have backed up that result, while others have argued that Hathaway’s methods were flawed. At the very least, evidence that human rights treaties improve the behavior of states most in need of improvement is wafer-thin. 

You won’t hear any of this from the arms trade treaty activists. For years now, they have been in the business of getting the treaty done, and they have all sorts of incentives to present its creation as a stunning achievement. I’m not equating the NRA’s distortions with the activists’ hopefulness. The NRA’s claims can be refuted directly with the treaty text; the activists are guilty of the lesser sin of willful wishful thinking. But I would argue that the NRA and the arms treaty activists aren’t quite as different as the latter would like to believe.  

David Bosco is an associate professor at Indiana University's School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of books on the U.N. Security Council and the International Criminal Court, and is at work on a new book about governance of the oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist

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