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Regulating the international Trade in Conventional Weapons: Five Minutes with Rachel Stohl

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Following a panel discussion on the Arms Trade Treaty, which entered into force in December 2014, hosted by the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs sat down with Rachel Stohl, Senior Associate at the Stimson Center and a former consultant to the United Nations, to discuss the negotiation process of the treaty, as well as its domestic and international political significance.

GJIA: How did UN member countries reconcile the various arms-control regulations and standards that exist across the international community to draft an agreeable treaty?

RS: We started with the view that the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) should be a floor, not a ceiling. In other words, we thought that there needed to be a minimum set of standards concerning the trade of conventional weapons. Not every country needs a system as complicated as that of the United States, but everyone needs to have a basic structure to their regulatory system. That might range from having a national control list to identifying criteria that would be used to evaluate arms transfers. We knew that a one-size-fits-all national exports system wouldn’t be practical, but we understood that we needed pieces of such a system to help raise the standards that countries presently maintain.

GJIA: How will a strong international commitment to this treaty influence the operations of the arms trade?

RS: The Arms Trade Treaty is not going to change the arms trade overnight; Russia will not just suddenly stop selling arms to Syria. What we hope to see over time, however, is that these norms and standards start to develop in such a way that states begin to think about how their arms transfers are perceived, even if they are outside of the domain of the treaty. Countries do not like to be named and shamed, so having a standard by which they can be judged is very powerful. Over the long term, in 15 to 20 years, we hope to see different values in the arms trade. It is still a legitimate business; we want to promote the legitimate side of the arms trade and try to curb the irresponsible and illegal trade as much as possible.

GJIA: Why has the Arms Trade Treaty faced significant opposition in the United States from both the House of Representatives and the Senate?

RS: Opposition to the ATT is rooted in rhetoric, not substance. The treaty only addresses the international trade of arms – those that cross international borders. The ATT does not cover, nor regulate, what happens within a country’s national borders. There is no threat to the activities of U.S. citizens, including their ability to buy weapons or use them within the United States. Rhetoric against the treaty is, however, a powerful fundraising and political tool. Certain constituencies have found value in feeding the mythology about the ATT. If you read the treaty, you can easily identify the ways in which it actually protects U.S. citizens’ rights. The treaty recognizes constitutional protections for ownership in the preamble; it mentions the legitimate purposes for arms, including sports and hunting. I think that misconceptions about the treaty are based on fear and political gain, not on what the treaty actually says.

GJIA: While there may be other organizations or supranational bodies that could have provided more robust and specific standards for the arms trade, why is it politically important for this treaty to have been formed and negotiated within the UN?

RS: I was a big proponent for the treaty to be negotiated within the UN because the arms trade involves and impacts every country in the world. Whether you are an importer or an exporter, a transit country, or a victim of armed violence or armed conflict, the arms trade, in some way, touches your country. Every nation should, therefore, have a voice in what this treaty dictates. We could have had a small group of like-minded states come up with higher standards that would have been difficult to universalize and implement.. The UN, however, is a forum where every state has a voice, not just major exporters or importers. Negotiating the treaty within the UN created a level of trust that the treaty is for everyone.

Professor Stohl was interviewed by Marisa Hawley on 31 March 2015 in Washington, D.C. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This article originally appeared in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs.

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