While President Obama has forcefully called out Congress for not passing gun control, the United States has been one of the leading countries blocking a global treaty to regulate the $70 billion international arms trade, torpedoing it last summer and dragging its feet on it this week at the United Nations. While Iran, Syria and North Korea are generating headlines for officially blocking the treaty, less attention has been paid to the role of the U.S. — acceding to pressure from outside groups including the National Rifle Association — in stalling its progress. We’re joined by Andrew Feinstein, author of "The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade." [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Obama is urging Congress to pass his gun-control agenda, which includes universal background checks for gun buyers. On Thursday, Obama made an emotional plea for Americans not to forget the horrifying elementary school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, three months ago. Surrounded by mothers of shooting victims, Obama said decisive action must be taken to prevent future tragedies.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There’s absolutely no reason why we can’t get this done. But the reason we’re talking about it here today is because it’s not done until it’s done, and there are some powerful voices on the other side that are interested in running out the clock or changing the subject or drowning out the majority of the American people to prevent any of these reforms from happening at all. They’re doing everything they can to make all our progress collapse under the weight of fear and frustration, or their assumption is, is that people will just forget about it.
AMY GOODMAN: As President Obama tries to shame Congress for not passing gun control, the U.S. has been one of the leading countries blocking a U.N. treaty to regulate the $70 billion international arms trade, torpedoing it last summer and dragging its feet on it this week at the United Nations. While Iran, Syria, North Korea are generating headlines for officially blocking the treaty, less attention has been paid to the role of the United States and outside groups, including the National Rifle Association.
For more, we’re joined by Andrew Feinstein, author of The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade. He’s working on a film version of his book. He’s a former ANC member of the parliament in South Africa.
Andrew Feinstein, welcome to Democracy Now! Before we even talk about this, I just want to ask you about Nelson Mandela, again ailing in the hospital—
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —as a South African.
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: Absolutely. It’s obviously a very difficult time for all South Africans and for many people in the world. You know, I think, at his age, into his nineties, when somebody spends this amount of time in hospital, there is quite legitimately going to be concern. He is certainly frail. But at the moment, we’re supposedly in good spirits, according to the South African president. He said, at this point, we can only hope.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about what’s happening at the United Nations right now, and then we’ll talk about Congress. Very unusual yesterday, President Obama beseeching Congress, shaming them, trying to get them to pass gun control; meanwhile, just down the road at the U.N., the United States plays a different role in the international arms treaty, the first ever, that has not yet been signed. Can you talk about it?
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: Absolutely. I think the first point I should make is, as something of an outsider to the U.S., I find it extraordinary that legislation has not yet been passed on gun control. And I think most of the world would be absolutely astonished if there is not quite strict gun-control legislation in the United States. And President Obama is absolutely correct to be pushing for it. Ironically, as you say, at the same time at the United Nations, the United States was really perhaps more responsible than any other country for scuppering the negotiations last summer, as you mentioned.
AMY GOODMAN: And for an American audience, "scuppering" means?
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: Means to effectively end the negotiations before a treaty had been agreed. And now the same mechanism that was used by America in July has been used by North Korea, Iran and Syria to effectively block the treaty at the moment. The hope is that this will only be a temporary delay and that next week we actually will see in the General Assembly the first set of international rules for the global arms trade in place.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But this issue of requiring all 193 members of the United Nations, a complete consensus on a treaty, is that the normal method for deciding on these treaties, or is this one way that the United States used to make it more—make it possible for even just the United States by itself to block a treaty?
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: I think that was the intention of consensus. It’s used in some negotiations at the U.N., but certainly not all. And I think the U.S. and then President Obama, with the election in mind, to be quite honest, was thinking about the pressures that would come from the NRA itself, but also from large defense contractors, the interest groups that keep this multibillion-dollar industry going—an industry that, I should mention, is wracked by corruption, in which the boundaries between the illegal and the legal are extremely fuzzy and are constantly broken. So I think the U.S. insisted on this mechanism in these particular negotiations, and in some senses it has now come back to haunt the U.S.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But specifically, there’s been talk about how the current version has been watered down. What would the treaty do, in real life? Because the United Nations, of course, is notorious for its ineffectiveness in terms of being able to police other governments in various other treaties. How would this work?
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: Well, the idea is that it would raise the stakes. It would make it incumbent upon those countries that sign up to it to put in place certain mechanisms that would govern the way in which they export and import weaponry. The difficulty is, and to be honest with you, the treaty, in its current form, is a lot weaker than I would like to see. I think there are a lot of issues that haven’t been adequately addressed. There is also no meaningful enforcement mechanism. But to the credit of the civil society organizations and activist groups who have pushed for this treaty, it will be the first set of international rules. And I think what its real use will be will actually be giving activists and civil society organizations a lever with which to exert pressure on their own governments.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about the—oh, Juan, sorry.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I just wanted to ask, to follow up on that, can you give examples of some of the provisions that would bring progress on the question of control in the arms flow?
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: Certainly. What governments would have to do is they would have to consider certain criteria before authorizing the export of materiel, military equipment, weaponry, from their country. Those would include the likelihood of it contributing to an intensification of conflict, atrocities against their own citizenry or citizenry from other countries. It would also mean that they would have to document exactly what they were both exporting and importing. So there are a whole number of ways in which it would apply regulation that doesn’t currently exist. However, again let me emphasize, without strong enforcement mechanisms and without really committed political will from individual nation states, the utility and effectiveness of this treaty still will remain to be seen.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about the National Rifle Association’s role at the talks. On Saturday, the NRA thanked Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma for introducing an amendment during the Senate’s budget to preemptively prevent the United States from entering into the U.N. arms trade treaty. His amendment passed in the Senate early Saturday morning in a 53-to-46 vote. The executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, Chris Cox, said in a statement, quote, "Thanks to the efforts of Senator Inhofe, we are one step closer to ensuring the UN will not trample on the freedoms our Founding Fathers guaranteed to us," unquote. Well, last July, NRA chief Wayne LaPierre testified at the United Nations opposing the global arms treaty.
WAYNE LAPIERRE: The NRA is the largest and most active firearms rights organization in the world, with four million members who represent 100 million Americans who own firearms. On behalf of those 100 million American gun owners, I am here to announce NRA’s strong opposition to anti-freedom policies that disregard American citizens’ right to self-defense. No foreign influence has jurisdiction over the freedoms our Founding Fathers guaranteed to us. We will not stand idly by while international organizations, whether state-based or stateless, attempt to undermine the fundamental liberties our men and women in uniform have fought so bravely to preserve and on which our entire American system of government is based.
AMY GOODMAN: That was NRA chief Wayne LaPierre last July. But it was the U.S. government—interesting, strange bedfellows here, the NRA and the Obama administration—it was the Obama administration that, at the last minute, ended these talks last July. You had the head of Amnesty International saying, "This was [a] stunning cowardice [act] by the Obama administration, which at the last minute did an about-face and scuttled progress toward a global arms treaty," so that people, especially the activists, couldn’t even organize, because it happened at the very end. So, NRA and Obama together, when here at home they seem like they have their sights set on each other.
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: Let me make an initial point, and that is that the NRA has peddled untruths about this international arms trade treaty since the beginning. It is suggested that it would in some way impact on their ability internally within the United States to bear arms, which is an absolute nonsense. So, not only are they strange bedfellows on the international stage, but even what is happening domestically should be put in its place by the Obama administration itself domestically. But it has used the NRA, effectively, and I think for domestic political reasons in the lead-up to an election, to prevent the passage of the treaty.
And, yes, it was done in an enormously cynical way at the tail end of the negotiations that led activist groups and civil society in an impossible position. And even in the current negotiations, the United States has attempted to weaken the treaty in a whole range of ways, some of which, unfortunately, have come to fruition. And I think one has to bear in mind that there are massive interest groups here: the NRA plus the large defense contractors in the United States and around the world, who want to see as weak an arms trade treaty as possible, if there has to be one at all.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, this is in the context of our nation being by far the largest merchant of weapons in the world, dwarfing any other country in the world in terms of exporting of weapons of destruction around the—around the globe.
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: The United States sells and buys almost as much weaponry as the rest of the world combined. So what happens in the United States is absolutely crucial to the future of arms control in the entire world. So, the influence of Mr. LaPierre can unfortunately be extraordinarily damaging. And I would hope that the sort of distance that has been created between the administration and the NRA domestically is replicated internationally once this treaty is passed by the United Nations General Assembly, hopefully, last week, and that the untruths that the NRA has been peddling for years now about this treaty are finally put to rest.
AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Feinstein, we want to thank you for being with us, author of The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade, working on a film version of the book, also a former ANC member of the parliament of South Africa.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. And as we come to the last days of Women’s History Month, we’re going to be joined by a woman who certainly made history this—in the last century. Stay with us.