Religious Left Pushes for Arms Trade Treaty

Pacifist churches demand crippling law-abiding countries while the lawless pursue arms at will.

In July, negotiations at the United Nations are expected to conclude an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) to control global small arms sales.  The National Association of Evangelicals has jumped on board with many left-leaning religious groups to implore President Obama to “seize the historic opportunity.”

The Bush Administration had withheld support for the ATT idea, preferring focus on domestic regulation by responsible national governments over problematic arms sales.  Seemingly the current administration is on board.  But a majority of U.S. senators have reputedly indicated opposition, making the treaty more a symbol than a likely fact, at least for the U.S.

Despite the seeming unlikelihood of ultimate U.S. ratification, religious and human rights groups in late May urged Obama to “spare no effort” in crafting a “bullet-proof” ATT.  The letter explained that thousands are “slaughtered each year by weapons that are sold, transferred by governments or diverted to unscrupulous regimes, criminals, illegal militias, and terrorist groups.”  Faulting the “lack of high common international standards in the global arms,” the signers claimed an “effective international legal regulatory framework” would help reduce “human suffering and instability.”

Well, maybe. But too often even moderate religious groups, much less the Religious Left, are willing to trust international treaties to achieve global harmony. In reality, dozens of regimes globally, even after they sign ATT, will disregard it in pursuit of their own interests.  More lawful regimes like the U.S. and other Western powers will be stuck under its authority, gaining little tangible leverage over renegade arms transfers.

“We encourage you to be bold and work with like-minded states to achieve the strongest possible standard,” the religious and other letter signers told the President.  They didn’t comment on the possibility, or even likelihood, that non-like-minded regimes will contravene or even exploit the treaty, among other unintended consequences.

The letter writers told Obama he should include ammunition, as well as arms, under the treaty’s authority.  And they encouraged him to reject “erroneous claims” that ATT would “infringe on the right of U.S. citizens to legally possess firearms.  They also suggested that Secretary of State Clinton deliver the U.S.’s opening statement at the negotiations to highlight Obama’s personal commitment to ATT.

Critiquing ATT, Ted Brumond of the Heritage Foundation noted the treaty is “aspirational.” Its principles might be reasonable among the lawful democracies.  But expecting Syria or other dictatorships to consider the human rights consequences of arms transfers of course is absurd. Limits would impose on the U.S., which will abide by the treaty, but outlaw states will claim its rights under the treaty to buy and sell arms while ignoring its restrictions. ATT is similar to domestic gun control.  Law abiding citizens, who aren’t the target, comply. But criminals of course ignore it and are often further empowered.

“In a world of states that do not respect human rights, a universal treaty based on the vague and wide-ranging human rights criteria that the ATT will seek to apply to arms transfers will always apply with more force to the law-abiding than it does to the lawless,” Brumond wrote. “It will always be used by the naïve and the evil to apply the powerful weapon of shame against those with a deeply ingrained respect for the rule of law.”

Brumond further warned based on recent history:  “The ATT will pretend to regulate the international arms trade, but it will have more in common with the U.N.’s aspirational treaties on human rights, which repressive regimes use to deflect attention from their misdeeds by pointing to supposed U.S. and Israeli violations.”

Under ATT, Brumond suggested, Iran could and likely would continue to transfer arms to its terror clients, while naturally claiming to comply.  But should the U.S. or other powers attempt to arm rebels against Iran’s tyrannical theocracy, Iran could legally protest this violation of ATT.

Some U.S. senators may attempt to prevent legislation prohibiting ATT from affecting U.S. domestic Second Amendment gun rights.  But Brumond suggested the larger threat from ATT will be the likely vagueness of its language and the wide ranging implied powers of its implementation that would embolden future international bureaucrats.  “The best defense against encroachments on U.S. sovereignty—including the ability to conduct foreign policy—rests with oversight by elected officials and the vigilance of American citizens,” Brumond wrote.

But protecting U.S. sovereignty from vague, aspirational international treaties that undermine the very goals they purportedly seek is not a priority for left leaning U.S. religious groups, for whom sentiment often outranks reality.  There is little new here.

In the 1920’s, groups like the old Federal Council of Churches eagerly embraced international treaties, often negotiated through the League of Nations, that restricted arms and even purportedly abolished war in the Kellogg-Briand Pact.  “The principle of peace thus becomes lodged in the minds of men as the ultimate goal of humanity” celebrated endorsing Methodist bishops in 1930 about that pact.  Other Methodist bishops in 1932 declared with equal certitude about global treaties:  “We have gone beyond the day when war-mindedness is of any value in our program of progress.”  Of course, within a few years, these aspirational treaties, and the League of Nations, became irrelevant as ascendant fascist powers brutally sought power rather than international approval.

Modern pacifist church groups that share the 1920’s era fantasies about the world joined the National Association of Evangelicals in urging the President to seek and implement ATT.  So of course did leftist and functionally pacifist groups like Catholic Maryknoll order and the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.  With them are secular groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Center for American Progress.  Evangelicals, who realistically profess to believe in the power of human sin, should be shrewder, and more politically modest, than their fellow ATT letter signers.

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