- - Wednesday, July 16, 2014

In a little-noticed action, the U.N. General Assembly on April 2, 2013, adopted by “majority vote” an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) with the objective of regulating the international trade in conventional arms from small arms to major military equipment. The treaty’s lofty objectives were to foster peace and security by limiting uncontrolled destabilizing arms transfer to areas of conflict. In particular, it was also meant to prevent countries that abuse human rights from acquiring arms.

While the record of the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty discussions makes no mention of it, the genesis for regulating the unrestrained transfer of conventional arms to conflict areas, Third World countries and human rights violators was a key policy of President Carter’s administration. Shortly after his inauguration in 1977, he initialed a policy of restraint on conventional-arms transfer and linked such control to the human rights record of potential recipients, particularly in Latin America. To implement this policy, the Carter administration proposed to the Soviet Union, the world’s second-leading supplier of arms, that it open negotiations to conclude such an agreement. These meetings were known as the Conventional Arms Transfer Talks.

The first region selected was Latin America, because there was less competition there than anywhere else in the world between the United States and the Soviet Union. As the director of political-military affairs, I was the Joint Chiefs of Staff representative in the U.S. delegation, which was headed by Les Gelb from the State Department. Suffice to say, after four meetings over a 12-month period and the “delusion” that a successful agreement could be achieved, the talks collapsed. The esoteric objectives may sound good in the faculty lounge, but they fail to pass muster in the real world.


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The Soviets were always the reluctant suitors in this enterprise. They were not about to restrict the transfer of arms in areas that they viewed to be in their political interests. Certainly, there was not unanimity of purpose in the Carter administration. The Joint Chiefs of Staff viewed the objectives as an unnecessary infringement on our strategy and sovereignty.

For the record, the Obama administration’s Conventional Arms Transfer policy issued on Jan. 16 embraces many of the objectives of the Carter administration’s policy, as well as the current U.N. Arms Trade Treaty. However, it makes no mention of either one.

A number of major defects in the U.N. treaty were detailed in a letter sent to President Obama in October 2013 by 50 senators — both Republicans and Democrats. The first problem was that the treaty was adopted by majority vote in the U.N. General Assembly, not by consensus, a condition called for by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. After entry into force, the senators contend, the Arms Trade Treaty can be amended by majority vote of signatory countries, effectively negating the Senate’s constitutional treaty power and handing it to foreign governments. Even the State Department concedes, the senators wrote, that the treaty “includes language that could hinder the United States from fulfilling its strategic, legal and moral commitments to provide arms to key allies such as the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the State of Israel.”


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Of most concern is the infringement on our constitutional rights, the senators charged. The Arms Trade Treaty “includes only a weak nonbinding reference to the lawful ownership, use of, and trade in firearms, and recognizes none of these activities, much less individual self-defense, as fundamental individual rights.” When coupled with the treaty’s ceding of interpretive authority to other countries, this poses a direct threat to the Second Amendment.

It should be noted that neither of Virginia’s senators, Mark Warner or Tim Kaine, signed the Senate letter against a U.N. treaty that threatens Americans’ right to keep and bear arms, and undermines American sovereignty.

Failing to sign the letter is not the first time Mr. Warner went AWOL on the Arms Trade Treaty. In January 2013, before Secretary of State John F. Kerry signed the treaty, the Senate passed a budget amendment sponsored by Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, to establish a deficit-neutral reserve fund for the purpose of “upholding Second Amendment rights, which shall include preventing the United States from entering into the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty.” Mr. Warner and Mr. Kaine were among the 46 voting “nay” on the amendment.

Supporters of the treaty say there’s nothing to worry about, because the Second Amendment is a constitutional protection, and nothing in a treaty can undermine it. Gun rights champions strongly disagree. “The Obama administration is once again demonstrating its contempt for our fundamental, individual right to keep and bear arms,” said Chris W. Cox, executive director of the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action, following Mr. Kerry’s signing of the treaty. “This treaty threatens individual firearm ownership with an invasive registration scheme. The NRA will continue working with the United States Senate to oppose ratification of the ATT.”

With 50 senators opposed to the Arms Trade Treaty, we can hope its prospects for Senate advice and consent are small — with or without the support of liberals such as Mr. Warner and Mr. Kaine. The Joint Chiefs of Staff also need to indicate clearly their concern, as it affect our strategy and sovereignty.

James A. Lyons, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.