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On Arming Those Libyan Rebels

Max Boot has argued that arming the Libyan rebels may be the best way to ensure that a prolonged conflict in that country doesn’t flood the world’s black market with arms. I am agnostic on this point: the world’s black market is flooded with arms in any case, and if I believed it was necessary or desirable to arm the rebels — though certainly not with surface-to-air missiles, a possibility against which Max rightly cautions — I would not be dissuaded by the reality that at least some of the weapons would inevitably surface somewhere else.

But there is a curious coda to Max’s argument. Britain’s David Cameron has come out in favor of arming Libya’s rebels. Meanwhile, the world’s nations have just finished the first negotiating session of 2011 on the UN’s Arms Trade Treaty, a treaty that has been strongly pushed by Britain’s governments, of all colors. The U.S. administration is also on board, and the pace of progress — if progress it be — is so rapid that it is very likely that the treaty will be ready for signature in 2012. The stated goal of the treaty is to keep arms off the illicit market and out of the hands of those likely to abuse them. But by definition, states — thanks to the inherent right of self-defense — have the right to buy, while rebels do not.

The implications of this for Libya should be obvious, though they do not seem to be so to Mr. Cameron. It pains me to say it, but Muammar Qaddafi is still the head of a Libyan government that is recognized by an overwhelming majority of the world’s governments. Libya may have been expelled from the Human Rights Council, but it still sits in the General Assembly. Thus, under the treaty that Mr. Cameron is so keen on, it would certainly be a violation of Britain’s treaty commitments to arm Libya’s rebels, whereas China — for example — could argue that arming Qaddafi is legal and of no concern to anyone else. That, in fact, is pretty much what it has said in the past when it was caught selling guns to Zimbabwe’s Mugabe.

Of course, if China wishes to resupply Qaddafi, it will do so, treaty or no. China’s argument would be a farce, but it would be there for the making, as it rests on the “right to buy” that is central to the treaty. True, we could always renounce the treaty, or come up with an ingenious argument to explain why it does not apply to the particular rebels we wish to arm, though this would not stop the many NGOs lobbying for the treaty from squawking. But we should not get into the habit of signing treaties that we propose to ignore when convenient: it is dishonest, bad for diplomacy, and as a matter of practice we find it hard to do anyhow.

I very much doubt that Mr. Cameron has thought this through. He simply wishes to accomplish two incompatible aims, and fails to recognize their incompatibility, or the fact that he is promoting a treaty that will tie his hands — and the hands of a great many other democrats — down the road while not encumbering the bad guys one iota. I cannot for the life of me understand why any serious person would find this desirable. Sadly, the answer may simply be that, like American policy, British policy is not serious.



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