The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Will Obama’s stance on the Arms Trade Treaty erode his own National Security Strategy?

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“We reject the notion that lasting security and prosperity can be found by turning away from universal rights…our support for universal rights is both fundamental to American leadership and a source of our strength in the world.” President Barack Obama, May 2010 National Security Strategy. President Obama has made it clear that security does not […]

“We reject the notion that lasting security and prosperity can be found by turning away from universal rights…our support for universal rights is both fundamental to American leadership and a source of our strength in the world.” President Barack Obama, May 2010 National Security Strategy.

President Obama has made it clear that security does not exist without respect for the rights of people throughout the globe. Tragically, this statement is currently at risk of being eroded by some in the administration who do not want to be restrained from selling or giving arms to bad guys.

This is the final week of the historic effort to develop a global Arms Trade Treaty. Governments have been huddled together in overcrowded rooms until the early hours of the morning hammering out a text. The goals of the negotiations are clear: develop a treaty that would prevent arms transfers to places where there is a substantial risk that the weapons will be used to seriously violate human rights or the laws of war. While the majority of states, including all of the US’ closest allies, are pushing for strong text that would prevent irresponsible arms transfers, the Obama administration is publicly stating that it wants loopholes in the treaty that would allow human rights to be ignored when national security interests are at stake. Specifically, Ambassador Donald Mahley said to the United Nations on July 12, that “it would be inconsistent with the principle of sovereign national implementation to require that [human rights and humanitarian law] criteria take precedence over criteria such as regional stability and national security.

Since when was adherence to the laws of war and protecting human rights an adversary to national and global security?

Most of the world ardently wants an Arms Trade Treaty. Millions of people have stood up and called for governments to put an end to the irresponsible arms trade and to develop rules of behavior that puts human rights and the protection of civilians at the center of arms trade decisions. The most heart-rending appeals are from the civilians who have endured the chaos and horror of unregulated combat, irregular combatants, and loose arms flowing over borders and from hand to hand.

Nepal: Maoist insurgents gather in Rukum district. It is estimated that the Maoist guerrillas of Nepal have around 10,000 hard-core fighters, including many women, backed by 50,000 'militia'. The prevalence of small arms that are affordable and easy to carry and use has changed the landscape of warfare, allowing women and children to be recruited as combatants. Credit: Ami Vitale

 

The US agrees with a treaty in principle. Secretary Clinton has clearly stated that an Arms Trade Treaty is needed “to ensure that all countries can be held to standards that will actually improve the global situation by denying arms to those who would abuse them.”

It seems to me that the US statement calling for human rights to be demoted below national security is heavily influenced by those in the administration’s national security team who want freedom to transfer arms to whom it wishes, even if the arms will be used in ways abhorrent to American values and interests. I am not naïve. I know that addressing national security always calls for some balancing of interests. However, the current US proposal would not only be in contrast to the Obama administration’s recent practice, but also allow nondemocratic or authoritarian governments who do not have the same reverence for human rights and want to sell or give weapons to war criminals or armed groups.

A treaty that does not clearly state that arms transfers to actors committing atrocities against their own people is unacceptable behavior is not worth having at all.  For example, what will keep Russia from claiming national security need when confronted with its arms transfers to Syria if the US creates a loophole in the international law?

According to President Obama, “the US has a commitment to an international order based upon rights and responsibilities.” It is time, Mr. President, to show that commitment and tell those who are opposing strong human rights provisions to get on board with your national security strategy and support a strong Arms Trade Treaty. The US has an opportunity to lead and to craft a global order based on the rule of law and human rights. It must seize the moment and support a strong treaty today. With only 4 days left for negotiations, time is running out.

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