The invalid assumptions behind the United Nations’ small arms control initiatives
Introduction by Philip Watson
The United Nations Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is mired in controversy, rumor, and misinformation among both gun-rights activists and anti-gun crusaders.
Jeff Moran of TSM WorldWide has been monitoring this situation along with several other groups including the Second Amendment Foundation and the International Association for the Protection of Civilian Arms Rights (IAPCAR).
In “Dishonest Humanitarianism? The invalid assumptions behind the United Nations’ small arms control initiatives,” Moran cites numerous examples of propaganda used by the supporters of the anti-gun treaty. Moran details the specifics of the ATT, and invalidates the generalizations associated with global small arms and ammunition trade.
Regardless of factual evidence refuting the bulk of their arguments global NGO’s are steadfast in their effort to eradicate civilian arms rights as well as regulate the trade of civilian arms and ammunition. In May 2012, the leaders of 51 global anti-civilian arms rights groups signed a letter to US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supporting action against the freedom of gun rights and ammunition trade.
Philip Watson is the Director of Special Projects for the Second Amendment Foundation and is also the Executive Director of the International Association for the Protection of Civilian Arms Rights (IAPCAR).
DISHONEST HUMANITARIANISM? – The GunMag July/2012
The invalid assumptions behind the United Nations’ small arms control initiatives
By Jeff Moran
New York, NY –-(Ammoland.com)- Next month diplomats from the world over will converge at the United Nations in New York to formally negotiate a legally binding Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).
This is the culmination of over a decade of humanitarian advocacy and pre-negotiations inside and outside the United Nations.
It’s part of a larger global effort kick-started in 2001 with the passage of a non-legally binding resolution by the UN General Assembly. This resolution was called the “Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects” (PoA).(1) This led to the creation of many initiatives, the most visible and contentious of which has been the ATT.
The ATT process formally got underway with two subsequent UN resolutions lead by the United Kingdom and is still Chaired by Argentine Ambassador Roberto Moritán. In 2006, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 61/89 entitled “Towards an arms trade treaty: establishing common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms.”(2) This resolution enabled the UK and like-minded countries to assemble experts to assess the feasibility of formally launching an ATT negotiation process. Then, in 2009, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 64/48, entitled “The Arms Trade Treaty,” which established a schedule for pre-negotiation meetings (known as Preparatory Committees, or PrepComs) resulting in a final Diplomatic Conference in July 2012.(3)
The goal of the ATT is to “to elaborate a legally binding instrument on the highest possible common international standards for the transfer of conventional arms.”(4) The scope is likely to include everything from helicopters to hand grenades, from tanks to target pistols and ammunition. It is hoped by humanitarians that a legally binding UN ATT championed by like-minded states could be shaped to complement the merely politically-binding 2001 UN PoA.
While all this treaty advocacy was going on, many of the same actors adopted a more discreet approach to binding international law for small arms and ammunition. Rather than just pursue their ambitious goals through a treaty out in the open, they also quietly started developing small arms control standards and customs. An example of this is the UN CASA (Coordinating Action on Small Arms) project, which is overseen by the UN’s Office of Disarmament Affairs.(5) UN CASA is euphemistically described as the “small arms coordination mechanism within the UN” to “frame the small arms issue in all its aspects, making use of development, crime, terrorism, human rights, gender, youth, health and humanitarian insights.”(6) In practice this organization is like a lawmaking committee or agency, but not nearly as accountable.
In 2008, CASA launched what they themselves described as “an ambitious initiative to develop a set of International Small Arms Control Standards (ISACS).”(7) UN CASA’s ISACS project includes eighteen mostly small and developing countries (none of them permanent security council members), fifteen international, regional and sub-regional organizations, 33 humanitarian civil society groups, 23 other UN bodies, and just one Belgian firearms company, and one Italian national sporting arms and ammunition industry association.(8) Ultimately, UN CASA’s ISACS initiative will eventually result in customary international law. Customary international law is the result of international administrative rule making which acquires the same weight as treaty law over time. States can be bound by customary international law regardless of whether the states have codified these laws domestically. Along with general principles of law and treaties, customary law is considered by the International Court of Justice, jurists, the United Nations, and its member states to be among the primary sources of international law.(9)
Truth be told, the UN’s PoA, the ATT, and CASA ISACS are predicated on false assumptions regarding small arms and ammunition. The two most important of which I will discuss here. Both of these assumptions are generally false in view of recent statistical studies and published scholarship. The first assumption is that proliferation of small arms is a universal threat to human security, or, alternatively, that greater availability of small arms means more gun deaths in a given society. This is best quoted by the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey (SAS), a special interest research group funded by various United Nations organizations, and other countries advocating stricter small arms controls.(10) The SAS officially states that the driving assumption behind all their research is the unqualified universal idea that “proliferation of small arms and light weapons represents a grave threat to human security.”(11) In fact, Nicholas Florquin, a senior researcher at SAS, started his talk during a two day seminar on Small Arms and Human Security in November 2011 with a stronger statement that, “proliferation of small arms causes problems” for humanity. (12)
Clearly, the small arms situation in some places may indeed be threatening to human security. But proliferation, i.e. the distribution of arms or expanding private ownership of arms, is not intrinsically a bad thing for everyone everywhere, especially in an ordered society. Proliferation, in fact, can be a force for good even in a disordered societal situation.
The American experience alone invalidates the global causative relationship between small arms proliferation and human insecurity. For example, trend data over the past nearly 20 years shows the US has been experiencing a phenomenal 35% decline in the number of gun deaths, even more in per-capita terms.(13) This is part of a long term general trend in lower criminality. Over the same period firearms-related suicides per 100,000 people declined by nearly 20%, the population grew over 20%, gun availability spiked (firearms sales boomed while statistically insignificant numbers of guns were bought back or otherwise destroyed), and, in 2011, indicators of national gun ownership rates increased to their highest level since 1993.(14,15) In other words, what we see in the US is the flipside of the assumption, that proliferation of small arms coincides with less gun violence. While this situation doesn’t necessarily mean more guns causes less gun violence, it does mean that the “more guns means more violence” assumption is simply not valid.
The French experience arming revolutionaries abroad invalidates the moral aspect of this first assumption, that proliferation is intrinsically bad. In fact, France alone has shown there can be a democratic and human rights upside of small arms proliferation. Have humanitarian campaigners forgotten that France armed liberty-seeking American revolutionaries against colonial Britain? Are they denying that France also armed liberty-seeking Libyan revolutionaries last year, and, ultimately, facilitated the demise of a regional dictator and notorious human rights abuser? These experiences prove even legally questionable state-sponsored small arms proliferation to “insurgents” and “revolutionaries” can actually be a good thing for some societies and their local humanity.
The second assumption is that there is a plague of international illegal weapons trafficking threatening humanity everywhere. In fact, Rachel Stohl, the long-time private consultant and insider working directly for Ambassador Moritán managing the ATT processes, has even published that “Without a doubt, it is the illegal arms trade and its various actors, agents, causes and consequences that capture our attention and motivate our action.”(16)
New research suggests the problem of illicit international trade in arms is not nearly as bad as first hypothesized over 10 years ago. Humanitarian campaigners’ evidence about the vast size, global scope, and cataclysmic impact of international illicit trafficking simply does not exist. Granted, it’s hard to quantify such illegal activity. Nontheless, the assertion that illicit international small arms trafficking is a major problem for the world has in fact been disproven over 10 years of progressively improved knowledge on the topic by academics and specialist researchers.(17)
To this day, however, the UN still claims on its Office of Disarmament Affairs website that international trafficking is a “worldwide scourge,” and that it “wreaks havoc everywhere.”(18) Campaigners, and their UN organizational sympathizers, must embrace the truth and acknowledge that the world is NOT actually suffering from a scourge of illegal international arms trafficking everywhere. At best, some failed or fragile states, conflict or post-conflict regions may be suffering from illegal trafficking, but even this is of dubious importance ranked against other concerns like local diversion of small arms from government arsenals. Deaths and violence by small arms and light weapons are, on the whole, symptomatic of more local causes rooted within societies, and not cross-border transfers.
The inconvenient truth today for humanitarian campaigners for international small arms controls is that for most countries around the globe, even for most developing or fragile states, a combination of deficient domestic regulation of legal firearms possession with theft, and loss or corrupt sale from official inventories is a more serious problem than illicit trafficking across borders.(19) The much touted scourge of illicit trade in small arms must be recognized, therefore, as hyperbolic humanitarian catastrophizing, or as we say in business, “marketing hype.”
In conclusion, while hyping of the size, scope, and impact of the illicit aspects of the arms trade was a de facto condition for first building consensus and momentum for the PoA, the ATT, and programs like CASA ISACS, continuing to do so presents serious reputational risk.(20) Continuing to assert that proliferation of small arms in society is intrinsically a bad thing for humanity presents serious reputational risk as well. Ultimately, such apparent dishonestly in the pursuit of otherwise admirable humanitarian goals raises questions about hidden agendas, institutional credibility, integrity, and organizational subject matter expertise.
If the UN and humanitarian organizations really want to promote human security around the globe, honesty is still the best policy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeff Moran, a Principal at TSM Worldwide LLC, is a business consultant specializing in the international defense & security industry. He studies negotiations & policy-making at the Executive Masters Program of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. Previously Mr. Moran was a strategic marketing leader for a multi-billion dollar unit of a public defense & aerospace company, a military diplomat, and a nationally ranked competitive rifle shooter. Jeff Moran has an MBA from Emory University’s Goizueta Business School and a BSFS degree from Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.
Distribution authorized see Jeff Moran and URL as referenced. http://tsmworldwide.com/dishonest-humanitarianism/
- 1 http://www.poa-iss.org/PoA/poahtml.aspx
- 2 http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N06/499/77/PDF/N0649977.pdf
- 3 http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N09/464/71/PDF/N0946471.pdf
- 4 Ibid.
- 5 http://www.poa-iss.org/CASA/CASA.aspx, http://www.un-casa.org
- 6 http://www.poa-iss.org/CASA/CASA.aspx
- 7 http://www.un-casa-isacs.org/isacs/Welcome.html
- 8 http://www.un-casa-isacs.org/isacs/Partners.html
- 9 http://www.ll.georgetown.edu/intl/imc/imcothersourcesguide.html, http://www.mpepil.com/sample_article?id=/epil/entries/law-9780199231690-e1393&recno=29&, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Customary_international_law
- 10 Small Arms Survey, established in 1999, is supported by the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, and by sustained contributions from the Governments of Canada, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The Survey is also grateful for past and current project support received from the Governments of Australia, Belgium, Denmark, France, New Zealand, Spain, and the United States, as well as from different United Nations agencies, programs, and institutes.
- 11 http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/about-us/mission.html
- 12 November 4, 2011. This author was a note-taker and participant in this seminar, which was hosted by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.
- 13 http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/homicide/tables/weaponstab.cfm, http://webappa.cdc.gov/sasweb/ncipc/mortrate10_us.html.
- 14 http://www.gallup.com/poll/150353/self-reported-gun-ownership-highest-1993.aspx?version=print
- 15 http://webappa.cdc.gov/sasweb/ncipc/mortrate10_us.html
- 16 Rachel Stohl and Susan Grillot. The International Arms Trade. Polity Press: 2009. P. 93
- 17 Owen Greene and Nicholas Marsh, eds. Small Arms, Crime and Conflict: Global Governance and the Threat of Armed Violence. Routledge: 2012. P. 90.
- 18 http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs//2010/dc3247.doc.htm. http://www.un.org/disarmament/convarms/SALW/
- 19 Owen Greene and Nicholas Marsh, eds. P. 91.
- 20 Anna Stavrianakis. Taking Aim At the Arms Trade: NGOs, global civil society, and the other world military order. Zed Publishing Ltd: 2010. P. 143-4 The GunMag July/2012