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Arms Trade Treaty: Toothless and Harmless

Remember the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact–a crowning achievement of the Coolidge administration–which purported to ban the use of war to settle international disputes? Clearly the United Nations doesn’t, because its General Assembly has just approved a treaty just as well-intentioned–and as toothless.

The Arms Trade Treaty is designed to stop the sale of conventional arms to human-rights abusers. It would certainly be nice if, say, Iran and Russia were prohibited from shipping arms to Bashar Assad–to take just one example of many from the immoral, or more accurately, amoral international arms market. But it is hard to see what the Arms Trade Treaty will do to accomplish this end, since, as the New York Times notes, “implementation is years away and there is no specific enforcement mechanism.”

Advocates of the treaty hope that the force of moral suasion will dissuade states from shipping arms to unsavory customers. I hope they’re right, but count me as skeptical: Dictatorial regimes in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, and elsewhere are not likely to be affected by angry editorials. And even more liberal states such as France are likely to sell arms to dubious customers simply to make money and enhance their influence. No wonder even such notorious arms sellers as Russia and China did not come out against the treaty; they voted to abstain instead, although Syria, North Korea and Iran did vote against it.

Given just how toothless the Arms Trade Treaty is, it is puzzling to see so much opposition to ratification in the U.S. Senate. Fifty senators have already come out against the treaty based on somewhat far-fetched arguments from the National Rifle Association that this will somehow imperil the gun ownership rights of ordinary Americans. I can understand opposing the treaty on the grounds of ineffectuality–but it hardly poses a threat to any state, much less the United States.


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