As he signed the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) on September 25, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry paid tribute to liberal non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Amnesty International and Oxfam. They were, he said, "absolutely vital to winning support for this treaty."
Kerry was right. Without incessant campaigning by the NGOs, the ATT would not exist. Which is why the ATT is so worrisome. Supposedly, it’s about cutting off the supply of arms to terrorists and dictators. But the NGOs that pushed the treaty are, in practice, much more interested in the supposed misdeeds of the United States and other democracies than they are in stopping terror and dictators.
Take Egypt. When the Islamist government of Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in July, Amnesty International USA condemned the U.S. sale of small arms to Egypt. But after the U.S. cut military aid, Egypt turned to Russia, signing a $2 billion arms deal in December that reportedly included weapons that can be used to "disperse demonstrations." U.S. arms sales to Egypt were part of a broader relationship that helped bring peace between Israel and Egypt after 1973, so the Russian contract also threatens renewed war with Israel. Yet the NGOs were silent about the deal.
Or Bahrain. Over the past week, the NGOs have been patting themselves on the back because they stopped South Korea from selling tear gas to Bahrain, the home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet. But they have waged no campaign against Iran, even after the seizure by Bahraini authorities of a massive shipment of Iranian arms that was apparently destined for opposition groups in Bahrain. It seems they are more concerned about South Korea's role in the Gulf than Iran's.
Then there is South Sudan. In late December, government forces used tanks to destroy houses. The New York Times reported three years ago that those tanks were smuggled to South Sudan by Kenya, but the NGOs have never condemned this, likely because Kenya is one of their best friends in Africa. Instead, in response to the recent fighting, Amnesty issued a press release calling for a UN peacekeeping force.
The pattern is clear. When the arms come from the U.S., in particular, the NGOs gasp in horror. But when the Palestinian Ambassador to the Czech Republic died in early January after a bomb he was keeping in his safe exploded, and Czech authorities found a "significant quantity" of weapons and explosives in an embassy building, the NGOs said nothing.
The NGOs like to see themselves as more foresightful than everyone else. As one Amnesty International researcher put it in 2011, "arms embargoes are usually a case of 'too little too late' when faced with human rights crises." But in reality, the NGOs are the ones that are late to speak up against anyone but the democracies, and in particular the U.S. They neglect cases like Bahrain, which promise violence in the future, preferring to chase the ambulance of today's crises.
The question is why. One answer is that the NGOs have more information about open societies like the U.S. than closed ones like Iran. But Iran's arms smuggling is no secret. Another is that their liberal donors like hearing bad things about the U.S., but don't want to know about Iran's activities because this justifies conservative concerns about Tehran. And a third is that the NGOs genuinely believe that the U.S. and South Korea deserve more blame than Iran and Russia.
Whatever the reason, the problem is that the NGOs did not just drive the creation of the ATT. They will help drive its interpretation, and its implementation. The ATT isn't just an ambiguous, inherently flawed treaty. It's in the hands of groups whose policy is simple: blame America first.