Will the Arms Trade Treaty provide effective embargos on human rights violators?

Reversing the position of the Bush administration, the Obama administration recently announced support for the global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which is currently being drafted by the United Nations. The leading voices for the ATT are the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA, funded by George Soros, and run by the Open Society’s former gun control executive, Rebecca Peters) and the IANSA spin-off  ”Control Arms.” Proponents of the ATT promise that it will impose effective arms on embargos on human rights violators. In a forthcoming article in the Penn State Law ReviewThe Arms Trade Treaty: Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Prospects for Arms Embargoes on Human Rights Violators, Paul Gallant, Joanne Eisen and I examine the issue. Our article shows that if the ATT were to be implemented as its proponents promise (to proactively embargo arms where there are serious risks of instability), there would have to be dozens of new embargos. Because small arms manufacture is already widespread, and is not technologically complex, most targets of new embargos would be able to manufacture firearms domestically. 

We then study two failed arms embargos: Zimbabwe, and the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Zimbabwe is currently under a European Union embargo, but there is no UN embargo because Mugabe’s principal diplomatic allies, China and South Africa, have blocked UN action.  Moreover, the South African government has flagrantly violated South Africa’s own gun control law (which was imposed by the currently-ruling party), which forbids South Africa to authorize arms transfers to human rights violators. If South Africa will not obey its own laws, there is no reason to assume that it will obey treaty law created by the UN.

The eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo is under a United Nations embargo, impsed by the Security Council. But the embargo has been violated by smuggling conducted by most of the nations which border the DRC, and even by UN “peacekeepers” in the DRC. Thus, the ATT might, at most, lead to more nominal embargos of arms; but nothing in an ATT can have greater force in international law than a Security Council order already does. Accordingly, the ATT will be of little or no use in achieving its purported objective. To the contrary, the ATT may be positively harmful, since it will probably declare a “right” of governments to acquire arms. This “right” could be used to claim that arms embargos outside the ATT system (e.g., unilateral embargos by the US, or the EU) are violations of international law.

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