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Multilateralism and the Arms Trade Treaty

The negotiation of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which I am observing at the U.N., offers a wonderful environment in which to observe the various species of hypocrisy. But like any zoo, you pretty well know what’s in the cage. Iran will be smoothly menacing, Syria will spit venom, and every developing nation will demand “implementation assistance,” i.e. more foreign aid. In the U.N., the dangers and the silliness are somewhat mitigated by their predictability.

Not so in the press, as David Bosco illustrated. Writing in the “Multilaterialist” blog for Foreign Policy, Bosco offers what he appears to regard as a novel argument about the ATT. His thesis goes like this: Britain is very much in favor of the ATT. It is also in favor of providing military support to the Syrian rebels. But the ATT would purportedly impose strict human rights conditions on arms transfers, and since the rebels have been accused of human rights violations, aiding them would breach the ATT. Thus, Bosco triumphantly concludes, the ATT needs an independent review process to prevent Britain from aiding the rebels.

In the four years I have been following the ATT, this is the single most morally and practically confused piece I have read on this subject. It may well be true that, as Michael Rubin argued earlier this month, that it is unwise to arm the Syrian rebels because they are increasingly dominated by Islamist radicals. And you don’t even have to cite human rights concerns under the ATT to make the legal case for arming the rebels look doubtful at best. As I have pointed out in a paper on the ATT for the Heritage Foundation, the treaty will oblige all nations party to it to avoid circumventing the import control systems of other UN member states–and Syria is a UN member state.

But any sort of supranational review process run through the UN would be guaranteed to alienate the U.S., every other major power, and indeed most of the UN’s member states (even though it would certainly be biased in favor of the non-democratic majority). The mere fact that it is now being put forward as a supposedly serious suggestion–and this is not the first time that a treaty proponent has had a bright idea of this sort–illustrates one of the most dangerous things about the ATT: when it doesn’t work, its advocates are just going to escalate their demands. Ideas that are now regarded as laughable, ridiculous, and not to be contemplated–as this one is–will in a few years be a core demand of the NGOs, and in a decade creeping their way onto the U.N. agenda.

More than that, though, it should be obvious that Iran is not going to pay the slightest attention to any prohibitions on arming the Assad regime (or, indeed, of arming any group of terrorists or any despot who serves Iran’s interests), and that every rebellion against a murderous dictatorship will always be accused (spuriously or not) of human rights violations. So when I read Bosco’s piece, I could not help but think of John Stuart Mill’s A Few Words on Non-Intervention (1859), in which Mill wrote the following devastating assessment of those who advocate for non-intervention in all cases, in a world where dictators definitely do intervene to protect their clients and friends:

The doctrine of non-intervention, to be a legitimate principle of morality, must be accepted by all governments. The despots must consent to be bound by it as well as the free States. Unless they do, the profession of it by free countries comes but to this miserable issue, that the wrong side may help the wrong, but the right must not help the right.

And that is exactly where Bosco, and others who argue with him, end up: in a multilaterialism that Mill regarded as miserably one-sided, which is incompatible with any support for those who are in fact fighting for their freedom against a tyranny, and which Orwell stigmatized in 1942 as “objectively pro-Fascist.”


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