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At the UN arms trade treaty talks, the dictators rule the day

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FILE -- United Nations headquarters in New York City. (AP)

On Friday, March 29, the negotiating conference for the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty collapsed. The mainstream media, echoing the left-wing advocacy groups that backed the treaty, will tell you that three nations -- Iran, Syria, and North Korea -- blocked a treaty everyone else loved, one that would supposedly bring order to the international trade in conventional arms.

The new Axis of Evil did object. But they weren't the only ones. I should know: I was in the room for the entire seven-hour session. The conference rules stated that only a single nation had to speak up to stop the treaty, so when Iran objected, it was game over. Syria and North Korea were merely piling on. But after the conference failed, we saw that it wasn't just those three nations that opposed the treaty.

True, the new Axis nations were the only ones who formally rejected the treaty. But in statements made after the conference fell apart, it was obvious that many more nations felt the same way. By blocking the treaty and taking the heat for doing so, the new Axis allowed lots of other opposed nations to state their position without being blamed for it. Or even without being noticed at all.

I counted no fewer than 29 nations opposed to the treaty. The entire Arab Group did so, and that's 22 nations, if you include suspended Syria. (Imagine how awful you have to be to get suspended from the Arab Group for human rights violations.) So did Nicaragua, Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba, and Indonesia. Most of them are also dictatorships with appalling human rights records. Add North Korea and Iran, and that's 29.

A further six nations were deeply skeptical. Perhaps it doesn't matter so much if Belarus and Armenia aren't fully on board, but you can't say that about India, Pakistan, Russia, and China. They're major arms exporting and importing states, and most of them are deeply irresponsible. When you put them together with the 29 opponents, and allow for the fact that many nations took no position, you end up with a very substantial contingent.

The conference outcome tells us, yet again, something that should already be obvious. The U.S. has a system for controlling arms exports that, though too complex, is basically reasonable. But the dictator nations have no interest whatsoever in being responsible exporters of arms. All they want is a treaty that guarantees them the right to buy all the guns they want, and which snuffs out any possibility of armed rebellion by their oppressed peoples.

Negotiating treaties that the other side won't respect is a fool's errand. Unfortunately, we're continuing to play the fool. The friends of the treaty are going to take the rejected draft to the U.N. General Assembly -- perhaps as soon as Tuesday -- where it seems sure to win a substantial majority, including the U.S. vote.

So soon, a treaty that most of our enemies won't respect -- a treaty passed by majority rule when we ourselves demanded unanimous adoption -- will land on President Obama’s desk for signature. The process has worked out better than the Administration could have dreamed. They got to side with the majority in the U.N., they will get their treaty, and the left-wingers (who blame the U.S. no matter who is in office) will turn their fire on the new Axis for a few days.

Supporters of the treaty like to say that a lot depends on how it is implemented. Not really: we know that lots of nations either won't implement it, or are too incompetent to do so. Besides, if they really wanted to impose tighter rules on the arms trade, they could have passed and enforced their own laws years ago.

What matters now is whether President Obama signs the treaty. That's not a slam-dunk: I regard the treaty as badly and inherently flawed, and I doubt that even the Administration believes it's perfect. The collapse of the U.N. conference has shed useful light on just how many dictatorial nations out there don't want the treaty, and that is a much higher number than most of the media will report. What the collapse has not done is stop the treaty. And that is a bad thing in its own right.

Ted Bromund is Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation.

Ted R. Bromund, Ph.D. is a Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations at the Heritage Foundation in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies.