In 1997, President Bill Clinton, standing beside Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo in the Organization of American States’ flag-bedecked Hall of the Americas, declared: “Gun trafficking is an issue of national security for our governments, and a matter of neighborhood security for all of us in the Americas.” The presidents had joined together to sign an OAS treaty known as the Firearms Convention, or by its Spanish initials as CIFTA, designed to end the illicit manufacture and trafficking of guns, ammunition, explosives, and related materials. It requires that ratifying nations create laws (if they do not already exist) that establish procedures for importing, exporting, and tracing small arms, light weapons, and ammunition, and as well as mechanisms for enforcement.
As Zedillo noted at the signing, the convention is “the first international legal instrument of its sort.” That the first international arms-control agreement was signed in the Americas reflects a number of crucial dynamics. The region was just emerging from a period of intense conflicts, many of which where perpetuated by illicit weapons flows across national borders. But unlike other regions emerging from warfare, the Americas include both major suppliers and major importers, making an agreement that removes contradictions between national laws necessary. It usefully includes both supplier and recipient states, has broad definitions of firearms and explosives, and is legally binding.
A 2000 State Department fact sheet boasted that “the United States was a leader in concluding” the treaty. “First proposed by Mexico and negotiated in just seven months,” it continued, “this agreement strengthens the ability of the OAS nations to eradicate illicit arms trafficking, while protecting the legal trade in firearms.” The United States helped develop the convention, according to a 2002 State Department fact sheet, and it was “modeled on U.S. laws, regulations, and practices.” The convention is “an outstanding example of the contribution that the OAS is making to the security of the hemisphere,” asserts the same statement.
On June 9, 1998, the U.S. Senate received the treaty and referred it to the Foreign Relations Committee “by unanimous consent.” And then . . . nothing. Today, the United States— together with Canada, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Guyana, Suriname, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines—has yet to ratify the treaty. Responsibility for this, at least at first, rested on the shoulders of one man: Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), who from 1995 to 2001 served as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he earned the nickname "Senator No." The Firearms Convention and countless other treaties were victims of Helms’ beef with the United Nations and President Clinton, and he was not going to allow debate on any treaty until the Clinton administration submitted to his will.
A strong ally of the National Rifle Association, Helms had a special disdain for arms control, as is evident in his dispatching of a modest $200,000 USAID-sponsored measure calling for a moratorium on the small-arms trade in West Africa. In a 1999 letter to the agency, Helms wrote that the “project proposes using U.S. taxpayers’ money (among other things) to lobby or promote policies in foreign countries that may very well be a violation of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—if the federal government attempted such activities here at home.” The proposed aid, Helms wrote, was “nothing less than a brazen international expansion of the President and Vice President’s domestic gun control agenda.” The measure did not pass.
But Helms no longer bangs the gavel in Foreign Relations. The chairman is Joe Biden (D-Del.), who received an "F" from the NRA for his pro-gun-control votes. Recently, Biden may have been too busy campaigning for the Oval Office to champion the Firearms Convention, but all that is needed is his green light, and the committee will hold hearings setting the ratification wheels in motion. The minority leader, Richard Lugar (R-IN), takes arms control very seriously, and has his name attached to some of the most effective bilateral arms control efforts in existence. But he has not championed the OAS convention either.
Yet in the State Department’s 2002 letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee outlining the administration’s treaty priorities, the convention was the first on the list of treaties that should be given very high priority, right below “urgent” priorities. In more recent editions of that annual letter, the convention has sunk lower down that list. There has been a little movement on the Convention, but not from the Senate leadership. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) insists that ratifying the convention “will help create a regime for the control of illicit trade in small arms which serves the strategic, economic, and political interests of the United States.” In 2004, she and three other senators sponsored the Security and Fair Enforcement in Arms Trafficking Act, which (among other things) sought to urge the Congress that the “Secretary of State should encourage those countries that have not done so to sign and ratify” the Firearms Convention. That the United States should be one of the nations so urged is strongly implied. This bill was also referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and that was the end of that.
Part of the reason for the lack of movement could be an unwillingness to aggravate the “sleeping lion” of the NRA. The pro-gun group’s influence is visible in repeated exhortations that nothing in the OAS treaty limit constitutionally protected gun ownership in the United States. Perhaps knowing it has the Senate committee’s ear, the NRA has not made defeating the Firearms Convention a central plank in its international work; certainly it has not reached the same apoplexy over the OAS treaty as it did over UN work on small arms, which it called a “global gun grab.” Meanwhile, with only a slim majority in the midst of a defining political moment, the Democrats might be timid about pushing a treaty that could serve to unify their opposition.
From the administration’s perspective, it is possible that ratification is not a priority because the United States wields considerable power throughout the OAS despite its lack of support for the convention.
Technically, all 35 independent nations in the western hemisphere are members of the OAS, although Cuba is barred from participating under its current government. While all nations contribute to the group’s annual budget of about $77 million, the United States’ share accounts for almost 60%. Washington also contributes well over $1 million annually to specific projects it deems important, including de-mining, development assistance, and a fund dedicated to “strengthening democracy.” These contributions “give the United States significant leverage over the types of projects undertaken by the OAS,” according to the Congressional Research Service.
The OAS convention—a sensible security tool—is just one of the many casualties of the Bush administration’s disdain for international and multilateral treaties: the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, the list goes on. There are more than two dozen treaties awaiting congressional action. Some, like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, have been languishing for decades despite an absence of opposition. Mexico City and Washington’s close collaboration on the treaty is ironic, given that the flow of guns from the United States to Mexico remains an enormous problem and a source of growing tension.
The Senate’s inaction on this and similar treaties further indicates the deep antipathy toward internationally binding agreements that permeates Washington politics. Senator John Kyl (R-AZ) sums up the administration’s anti-treaty philosophy as “peace through strength, not peace through paper.” Under the Bush administration, the United States struck out on its own, ignoring, undermining, and in some cases toppling key international agreements negotiated by earlier administrations in the interest of peace and security.
Frida Berrigan is a senior program associate with the New America Foundation’s Arms and Security Initiative.