Commentary Magazine


Topic: late President

The Media Spins More Nonsense About the Arms Trade Treaty

UPI is running a story that sums up a lot of bad reporting about a favorite liberal cause: the UN’s Arms Trade Treaty. The piece – headlined “Arms Trade Plagued By Corruption” – is halfway between reporting and editorializing. It’s occasioned by the arrest in Las Vegas, after a two-and-a-half-year undercover Department of Justice sting operation, of 22 Americans, Britons, Israelis, and others at an arms expo. They are charged with trying to bribe an individual they thought was an African defense minister to obtain a $15 million contract. Bribing foreign officials is a violation of the 1977 U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

The story – dated from Beirut, which helps explain its emphasis on Western wrongdoings in general, especially directed at the Israelis, Americans, and British – emphasizes how international arms trade should be controlled by the UN, and how UN action has been stymied by the UN Security Council’s permanent members, especially the United States. According to UPI, the Obama administration’s support last fall for an arms-trade treaty, and its willingness to arrest the individuals in Las Vegas, shows that times and the mood of the U.S. are finally changing.

This is ridiculous. The DoJ investigation began under President George W. Bush, so the arrests tell us nothing about changing U.S. policy. It’s wrong to presume guilt, but if those arrested in Las Vegas did seek to violate the 1977 Act, then U.S. authorities did the right thing by arresting them. The tale of the U.S. as the preeminent hold-out against good and right is contradicted by the story’s emphasis on BAE’s legal difficulties in Britain over bribes that may have been paid to facilitate sales in Eastern Europe, Africa, and Saudi Arabia, and by its summary of the conviction in October of the son of Francois Mitterand, the late President of France, on charges of trafficking arms to Angola during its civil war. What is striking is that the U.S. is the only state that engaged in preemptive investigative action, which is in line with its reputation as one of the very few states that is serious about enforcing its export controls.

But the main nonsense is the story is simply this: the UN’s resolutions on the treaty say nothing about bribery. Their goal – supposedly – is to establish “common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms.” Even if the UN gets its treaty, bribery will remain what it is today: a crime (or not) for various states to define, investigate, and prosecute (or not) as they see fit.

Supporters of the treaty, like Britain, point out the need for signatories to “subscribe to the highest standards of good governance, including the need to tackle bribery and corruption.” But if states do not do this now, there is no reason to believe that a treaty will make them behave. Far from demonstrating the need for a treaty, the Las Vegas arrests sum up why a treaty will be irrelevant: what matters is not the creation of new common international standards but the ability and willingness of states to make and enforce good laws. The U.S. does this. Regrettably, the vast majority of the states negotiating the UN’s treaty do not.

UPI is running a story that sums up a lot of bad reporting about a favorite liberal cause: the UN’s Arms Trade Treaty. The piece – headlined “Arms Trade Plagued By Corruption” – is halfway between reporting and editorializing. It’s occasioned by the arrest in Las Vegas, after a two-and-a-half-year undercover Department of Justice sting operation, of 22 Americans, Britons, Israelis, and others at an arms expo. They are charged with trying to bribe an individual they thought was an African defense minister to obtain a $15 million contract. Bribing foreign officials is a violation of the 1977 U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

The story – dated from Beirut, which helps explain its emphasis on Western wrongdoings in general, especially directed at the Israelis, Americans, and British – emphasizes how international arms trade should be controlled by the UN, and how UN action has been stymied by the UN Security Council’s permanent members, especially the United States. According to UPI, the Obama administration’s support last fall for an arms-trade treaty, and its willingness to arrest the individuals in Las Vegas, shows that times and the mood of the U.S. are finally changing.

This is ridiculous. The DoJ investigation began under President George W. Bush, so the arrests tell us nothing about changing U.S. policy. It’s wrong to presume guilt, but if those arrested in Las Vegas did seek to violate the 1977 Act, then U.S. authorities did the right thing by arresting them. The tale of the U.S. as the preeminent hold-out against good and right is contradicted by the story’s emphasis on BAE’s legal difficulties in Britain over bribes that may have been paid to facilitate sales in Eastern Europe, Africa, and Saudi Arabia, and by its summary of the conviction in October of the son of Francois Mitterand, the late President of France, on charges of trafficking arms to Angola during its civil war. What is striking is that the U.S. is the only state that engaged in preemptive investigative action, which is in line with its reputation as one of the very few states that is serious about enforcing its export controls.

But the main nonsense is the story is simply this: the UN’s resolutions on the treaty say nothing about bribery. Their goal – supposedly – is to establish “common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms.” Even if the UN gets its treaty, bribery will remain what it is today: a crime (or not) for various states to define, investigate, and prosecute (or not) as they see fit.

Supporters of the treaty, like Britain, point out the need for signatories to “subscribe to the highest standards of good governance, including the need to tackle bribery and corruption.” But if states do not do this now, there is no reason to believe that a treaty will make them behave. Far from demonstrating the need for a treaty, the Las Vegas arrests sum up why a treaty will be irrelevant: what matters is not the creation of new common international standards but the ability and willingness of states to make and enforce good laws. The U.S. does this. Regrettably, the vast majority of the states negotiating the UN’s treaty do not.

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