It’s not unreasonable to be suspicious of the United Nations. It is, after all, run by politicians. And it’s definitely good to be vigilant against threats to liberty whenever regulations are being written. However, much of the scare surrounding the Arms Trade Treaty currently being discussed at the United Nations appears unwarranted.
I wouldn’t consider myself an authority on the Treaty. However, I have spent some time looking at the documents of the negotiations. In general, the treaty involves establishing universal guidelines for international shipments of weapons, including small arms.
Three issues that immediately came to mind:
1) It could be interpreted that abiding by the treaty would involve the expansion of domestic laws concerning the prevention of arms transfers to international criminal organizations, thus providing a justification to tighten regulations on private firearms sales. However, from what I’ve read there is currently no intention to ban private sales.
2) Weapons embargoes can make it harder for one side of a conflict to acquire arms it needs to defend itself against the other side. This was a factor in the Spanish Civil War and the wars in the former Yugoslavia. It’s unclear how the Arms Trade Treaty would address this issue.
3) The whole thing could be a feel-good statement by politicians who will manipulate language as much as their power allows to get what they want for themselves and their cronies anyway.
Official documents can be found at the United Nations Website. I spent the most time perusing the Compilation of views on the elements of an arms trade treaty. Certainly, there is always closed-door diplomacy going on that the public will not be permitted to see for some time, but public documents are valuable in understanding the positions of the players.
On Page 3 of the Compilation, the Algerians discuss their idea of the treaty:
Assuming that since the future arms trade treaty must facilitate the legal trade
in arms and prevent their illicit transfer and trafficking, it should be founded on:
• The purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations
• The right of self-defence in accordance with Article 51 of the Charter of the
• The right of all States to manufacture, import, export, transfer and possess
conventional arms for their legitimate self-defence and security needs and for
the maintenance of order
• The obligation for States to take steps to prevent the diversion of conventional
arms from legal channels to the illicit market
• The need to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit trade in conventional
arms, including small arms and light weapons, and their ammunition.
The Canadian statement emphasizes the need to explicitly protect lawful gun ownership by individuals (15-16):
Canada believes that the primary goals of an arms trade treaty should be:
• To prevent transfers of conventional arms that breach Security Council
• To prevent arms transfers that contribute to serious violations of human rights
• To prevent arms transfers that contribute to serious violations of international
• To prevent transfers of conventional arms that provoke, prolong or aggravate
• To prevent transfers of conventional arms that support or facilitate terrorist
• To prevent transfers of conventional arms that would be used in the
commission of transnational organized crime
• To prevent the diversion of conventional weapons to unauthorized end users
• To promote transparency and due diligence in transfers of conventional arms.
These should be the core criteria of any future arms trade treaty. While other
criteria may be considered, it is these that should form the foundation of an effective
Recognizing legitimate trade and ownership
The goal of the treaty should be to curtail illicit and irresponsible transfers of
conventional arms, and their diversion from legal trade into the illicit market. The
treaty should not impede the legitimate trade in conventional arms, nor should it
discourage or undermine the use of firearms for recreational activities or other
forms of lawful and responsible ownership and use as recognized by States parties.
Canada is particularly concerned that the treaty not place new burdens on lawful
Canada therefore believes that the goal of the treaty should be clearly stated in
its preamble and requests the inclusion of the following two (or similar) preambular
“Recognizing that the purpose of the Arms Trade Treaty is to prevent,
combat and eradicate the illicit and irresponsible transfer of conventional arms
and their diversion into the illicit market, including for use in transnational
organized crime and terrorism,
“Noting that the Arms Trade Treaty acknowledges and respects
responsible and accountable trans-national use of firearms for recreational
purposes, such as sport shooting, hunting and other forms of similar lawful
activities, whose legitimacy is recognized by the States Parties”.
Presumably, self-defense and militia drilling would be lawful activities whose legitimacy is (officially) recognized by the US Government.
The Canadians go further on page 18:
Many States participating in the arms trade treaty process have called for a ban
on transfers to non-State actors. While it is clear that those advocating this wording
are referring to illegal armed groups such as terrorist organizations and transnational
criminal groups, this wording could also be interpreted to mean legitimate and
responsible private companies and individuals. Accordingly, to clarify the intent of
this position, Canada would prefer the term “illegal armed groups” to “non-State
actors” as it better captures the intended meaning and provides clarity regarding which actors in particular the arms trade treaty seeks to prevent obtaining access to arms.
Much hinges on what makes an armed group illegal according to the treaty. In the current political situation this passage does not appear to threaten individual gun ownership.
The Swedish submission discusses encouraging states to create national systems to control the arms trade (86):
In practical terms, the main operational goals of an arms trade treaty are to
create international norms in the area of arms transfer controls and, through
obligations in the treaty, encourage as many United Nations Member States as
possible to enact and maintain a national system to control the trade in arms and
military equipment. The illegal trade in arms that causes so much human suffering
and societal disruption around the globe is, by definition, a problem that straddles
national boundaries and requires international cooperation to address. An arms trade treaty which fulfils these goals should significantly improve prospects for curbing the illegal trade in arms and enhance responsibility in the legal arms trade.
On Page 88, it is apparent that the Swedish are referring to international arms shipments:
Sweden favours a numerical ratification requirement for entry into force. All
countries, whether they are mainly exporters, importers or transit States, have an
important role to play in the treaty…
The treaty should not regulate the movement or possession of controlled items
within the territory of a State party, or their transfer to a State’s own armed forces
While the politicians at the UN certainly put their own interests first, so do the politicians, pundits, and industry representatives who cry out against the treaty. The average American gun owner might experience more regulation as a result of the treaty, and an increase in red tape for international transfers could affect the availability of firearms from foreign countries. While these are not good things for liberty, they don’t spell out the nightmare scenario some are concerned about.