Monday, July 23, 2012

Remembering Norway, Colorado, and Hammurabi’s Code

by Jonathan Frerichs, World Council of Churches
A nightmare in Norway last July, a ‘live’ horror show in Colorado last week—these domestic tragedies are not the business of the ATT. Yet, no camera pointed at the crime scenes could tell the difference between such tragedies and the abuses that an ATT is mandated to address. Neither can the human heart.
Respecting jurisdictional differences, however, what similarities come to mind as we remember the events of Utoya Island, the Aurora cinema, and other places, over against incidents that an ATT would address?

First, it is striking how simply such scenes are set:  An individual gunman takes advantage of national regulations. The details are more elaborate: Shortly before his crime in Aurora, the suspect, James Holmes, went shopping at local stores for a military-style assault rifle and three other guns. He also went shopping on-line for 6,000 rounds of ammunition and some large magazines. 

Armed groups, brokers, arms suppliers, and unaccountable authorities simply take advantage of international arms trade regulations.  The details—and the consequences—of their behaviour are also striking. After 16 years of mounting protest, their deeds have helped bring 190 states to this UN conference.

Second, in both categories, the factors in play include lax laws, absent enforcement, unscrupulous purveyors, and various human motives conducive to the use of force. These factors contribute to the commission of acts of armed violence. Citizens everywhere also look to governments to provide protection and the redress of grievances. Thankfully, societies also have remedies for the downward spiral of revenge and violence since at least the era of Hammurabi’s Code.  

Third, phenomena like internet arms shopping are not all that confront the ancient legal precedent of providing equal protection and equal justice for all. Incentives to skirt the law, or to take it into one’s own hands, are many. Chief among them is the lure of profits. Beside it at the international level stands the temptation to hide the private logic of excessive nationalism under shared principles of sovereignty among nations. Whatever the reasoning, the result is lawlessness that makes arms available for abuses, for atrocities, and for other, slower forms of destruction.

Finally, what stands between potential victims and the perpetrators of armed violence? In the socio-political arena, protections include a web of mores, laws, and institutions that enable individuals, communitiesm, and nations to live together in some semblance of safety and harmony. In the spiritual realm many believe that there is something in each human being that is good, and of God. Treating others as we would have them treat us is an inspired invention, like Hammurabi’s Code, from the cradle of civilization in the Middle East.  It is as valid as ever, there, and everywhere.  

Like national laws, the ATT needs to make generous use of such timeless precepts if it is to deal with challenges whether they are as old as greed or as new as a high-tech drone. 

In international affairs, where the fabric of society is thin, protection from unlawful armed violence requires improvements in the cooperative forms of security that law enables.  Many of the right words for this are on delegates’ desks at the ATT Diplomatic Conference.  States will need to graft them into the ATT if it is to help stop violence that continues to put people at risk. 
The text emerging here has to be assessed in terms of whether or not it builds the rule of law, curbs every-man-for-himself practices, and provides humanitarian benefits that transcend national boundaries. In that sense, we may ask:
  • Do the criteria require states to protect people who are now at risk by regulating the arms trade according to a high, common standard?
  • Is the scope a transparent catalogue of the tools and transactions that are open to misuse?
  • Do the goals and objectives apply widely shared principles to the finite positive tasks of an ATT?
  • Do implementation provisions incorporate solid cooperation and clear acceptance of obligations?
The quality of any Arms Trade Treaty will serve as a collective diagnosis of international priorities. It will show whose prerogatives have been given what kinds of precedence. It will strengthen the fabric of the international community, or allow it to fray and tear. 

After the massacre on Utoya Island, and in Colorado last week, citizens came together around the values that matter most in protecting life. The ATT’s challenge, in one sense, is to affirm and translate the same basic values—reverence for life, protection of human rights, inviolability of persons—into an instrument that curbs the illicit arms trade and makes legitimate transfers more accountable. That can only be done together. It will surely be done, some day. As events in many places continue to remind us, the time is already ripe right now.