On April 26th, President Trump signed an executive order meant to withdraw the United States from the UN Arms Trade Treaty, a 2013 treaty meant to set global standards for regulating transfers of conventional arms, from rifles to tanks and airplanes. He signed the executive order at a National Rifle Association speech, throwing his pen into the crowd afterwards to great applause and proclaiming that he was acting to protect America’s sovereignty and Second Amendment rights.
Although President Trump’s speech to the NRA was obviously meant to be flashy and dramatic, this move has been a long time coming. In January, the administration told Congress that they intended to finalize rules to shuffle which agency oversees consumer gun exports and, in the process, to relax export regulations and oversight. This rule change placed the Department of Commerce, which has a far simpler process for approving international arms sales than does the State Department and which does not even charge a fee for the process, wholly in charge of the verification of international arms sales. Further, under new rules, Congress does not have to be notified of arms deals in advance of their occurrence. This is worrying, because Congress has acted multiple times previously to block arms sales over human rights concerns. These moves have been widely criticized because, while the State Department has the existing framework and personnel to vet arms exports on human rights and security grounds, the Commerce Department does not. As such, the potential for human rights abuses arising from US international arms sales will almost certainly increase dramatically.
Despite the overwhelming perception that the State Department system was effective at protecting human rights, it is worth noting that the US record on arms sales has been anything but solid in recent years. IELR Editor-in-Chief, Bruce Zagaris wrote in 2016 that a lack of effective export controls within the US has led to a significant flow of “high-powered weaponry from the U.S. to Latin America and the Caribbean which has exacerbated soaring rates of gun-related violence in the region and undermine[d] U.S. influence in the Western Hemisphere”. Between 2015 and 2017, the United States approved $2 million to $4 million in gun sales per year to Honduras, an amount which is significant in a relatively poor country like Honduras. Some of the guns sold to Honduras were turned on protestors in 2017 and many others ended up in the hands of criminals, with photo evidence revealing that many of the guns used by state forces in the 2017 protests had been exported from Colt’s Manufacturing in Connecticut.
Because the escalation of violence and abuse in these Latin American countries has fueled the current migrant crisis, it is likely that US efforts to deregulate its international arms trade and to increase arms sales will contribute to a further escalation of the migration crisis in Central America and Mexico. Parallel situations have occurred in Libya, Afghanistan, and Syria, suggesting that further deregulation of the US arms trade will be a source of increasing instability globally, not just in Latin America.
So, why does the United States continue to operate in ways which are likely to undermine its long-term national security objectives? The answer is alluded to in the previous reference to Trump’s NRA speech: domestic politics. It is not an accident that the President chose this venue to sign his executive order withdrawing the US from the ATT. In international organizations, domestic politics remains the strongest indicators of a states’ compliance with agreements. The NRA and other opponents of the ATT have historically wielded significant political power in the United States. The NRA, one of the strongest lobbying groups in the US, spent over $36 million on the Trump campaign in 2016, breaking its previous records for campaign spending. There were also allegations that the group illegally coordinated with the Trump campaign to maximize the value of expenditures on ads and to avoid repetitive efforts. President Trump has responded to this support by heavily supporting the NRA, even going so far as to attack the New York attorney general’s office this week for “illegally” investigating the NRA.
The Administration’s wholehearted acceptance of the NRA’s views on this issue are unfortunate, because the Arms Trade Treaty, while imperfect, provided an international framework which could help to resolve the previously mentioned migration crises and to reduce the risks posed to US national security by unregulated international arms sales. Thus, despite likely failure, active efforts must be made to bring the US into closer compliance with the agreed upon principles of the treaty.
Evan Schleicher is the Editorial Intern for the International Enforcement Law Reporter. He is currently an MA candidate in Security Policy Studies at George Washington University, focusing on transnational security and humanitarian issues, and has also interned at the Department of State previously.