One curiosity regarding the issue of private ownership of firearms as a deterrent to oppression by state actors (and quasi-state actors) is the vehement opposition on the part of certain gun rights advocates regarding the United Nations' campaign to curb the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons (SALW). You might think that it's a fairly uncontroversial notion to try to prevent arms sales to warlords, terrorists and organized criminals, but if so, you aren't familiar with people like Wayne LaPierre (CEO of the NRA) and Dave Kopel. They have taken it into their heads that the aforementioned campaign is, in actual fact, directed largely at eliminating private ownership of firearms in the United States. If you don't believe it, buy Wayne LaPierre's book; sure, the list price is $25.99, but the man's done you a personal favor just by having written it, I tell you. Or you can get a free copy by joining the NRA (thereby helping to secure LaPierre's salary).
Predictably, this crap is founded on total ignorance regarding the United Nations; ignorance of the distinctions between the various bodies, ignorance of the powers accorded to those bodies, ignorance of how they operate and how they have exercised their powers in the past, etc. etc. Take this line from the "Book Description" of LaPierre's piece of drivel:
If you think there's no way an armed U.N. platoon of blue helmets can knock on your door to take your guns, this book just became your next must-read.
Please. Has LaPierre not read the papers lately? If he had, he would know that the Security Council cannot authorize the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces without the consent of the national government in question, which has been the primary obstacle to putting blue helmets on the ground in Darfur. And even though there's been a shift in thinking regarding actions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter in the past decade or so, there will never be Security Council authorization for a deployment onto United States territory for the simple reason that the US would veto such a move. It's curious how American conservatives will dismiss the UN as being nothing but an ineffectual "talking shop" with one breath, and then claim with the next that the organization not only wants, but is more than able to override the sovereignty of the world's only superpower.
But a question that needs to be asked is: why would any other country want to disarm the American citizenry? The United States isn't Afghanistan or Liberia, where gun violence has repercussions for other countries (refugees, regional destabilization, drug/diamond trade, etc.), and every country with an arms industry or stockpiles of military-surplus rifles is only too happy to export their weapons to the United States for sale on the civilian market. That's a long list: China (Norinco), Germany (Heckler & Koch, SIGARMS, Walther), Russia (Baikal and Remington's SPR line), Brazil (Taurus), Belgium (FN Herstal), Austria (Glock), Italy (the Beretta group), the Czech Republic (CZ), Serbia (Zastava, via EAA), Turkey (which manufactures shotguns and pistols for American and European companies). For such countries, ending private ownership of firearms in the United States would provide no benefit, and obvious losses in export revenue and jobs. Don't expect any coherent explanation from LaPierre and Kopel.
Kopel, for his part, seems detemined to prove that "the UN" (as if it were a monolithic entity) is evil, knowingly pursuing policies which will very probably result in mass murder, even genocide. An article from 2003, co-authored by Kopel and titled "When Policy Kills," has the following as its opening paragraph:
The spread of illicit arms and light weapons is a global threat to human security and human rights," insists United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan. But it would be far more accurate to say: "The U.N.'s disarmament policy is a global threat to human security and human rights." It was the U.N.'s lethal policy that was directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocents in Srebrenica in 1995.
In 1993-1994, I worked on the S-3 Section (operations and training) of the headquarters of the parent brigade of all three rotations of Dutchbat to Srebrenica, and was tangentially involved in the deployment of the first two. I knew quite a few people from Dutchbat III, and naturally took an interest when the enclave was overrun in July 1995. From 1999 until 2001, while working at the ICTY, I provided technical support to investigators and prosecutors in the Krstić case (IT-98-33), making seized Bosnian Serb army documents available to them in searchable electronic format. In short, I know a thing or two about Srebrenica; certainly enough to state with authority that Kopel's article is a tendentious exercise in intellectual dishonesty, selectively citing evidence, quoting out of context, and obfuscating the order of events in order to support a predetermined conclusion.
Most importantly, let me address the claim that UN policy "was directly responsible" for the massacres which occurred in the wake of the VRS (Vojska Republike Srpske—the Bosnian Serb army) overrunning the Srebrenica enclave. Later in the article, Kopel and his co-authors cite the book Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation. They should, therefore, have been familiar with chapter 20 ("The Hottest Place") of that same book, from which I draw the following quotes (1996 edition, emphases in italics mine):
In March , after hearing the news that the Srebrenica defenders had run out of ammunition, the Commander of the Bosnian army, Sefer Halilović, warned the UN Force Commander Philippe Morillon that a Serb offensive was about to begin, and that the Muslims in Srebrenica were in no position to defend their territory. [p. 266]
At the beginning of April , the Serbs issued a surrender demand through the UNHCR. The Bosnian Army was given a forty-eight-hour ultimatum. The most senior UNHCR official in former Yugoslavia, José Maria Mendiluce, attended talks in the town of Bratunac, from where the assault on Srebrenica was commanded. "Either they surrender and you get all the Muslims out of Srebrenica," the Serb Commander, Ilić, told him, "or we take the town in two days." Mendiluce started making plans for the evacuation of an estimated 60,000 people. It was to be the biggest single act of ethnic cleansing since the conflict began, and it was to be carried out by the UN. Mendiluce made no effort to hide the moral repugnance with which he approached the task he was now expected to carry out. "We denounce ethnic cleansing worldwide," he said. "But when you have thousands of women and children at risk who want desperately to be evacuated, it is my responsibility to help them, to save their lives. I cannot enter into any philosophical or theoretical debate now. We just have to save their lives." [p. 268]
[On the night of April 14th], Serb forces pushed through the Bosnian lines to the south and east of the town. They stormed the village of Zeleni Jadar on the southern edge of town. The Bosnian defensive positions, such as they were, collapsed. The push brought the Serb ring-of-steel to the very edge of the town. From their hill-top positions, almost every street was visible. [Ham radio operator] Ibrahim Bećirević radioed to Sarajevo—again in coded messages—that the town was hours, rather than days, from collapse. [p. 271]
As the quoted passages illustrate, the ability on the part of the enclave's defenders to mount an effective resistance had ceased to exist well before the creation of the "Safe Area" in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 819, which was passed on 16-Apr-1993, at 2300 New York time (by which time it was already 0500 on the 17th in Bosnia). Kopel's assertion that the massacres would have been averted were it not for the UN's intervention is demonstrably false; indeed, they would have occurred 27 months earlier than they ultimately did, and might have been significantly more vicious, given the Serbs' rancor over the Muslim attacks on Serb villages surrounding the enclave over the previous winter.
For that matter, the assertion that the demilitarization of the Srebrenica "safe area" took place due to any UN policy is a fiction. Demilitarization of the enclave was a demand made by Ratko Mladić, commander of the VRS, in exchange for halting the assault; negotiations regarding the cease-fire and demilitarization between Mladić and Halilović took place in Sarajevo on 17-Apr-1993 (and lasted into the early hours of the 18th), but the arrangements for these negotiations had already been made prior to the passage of resolution 819 less than 12 hours earlier. It's worth noting that none of the resolutions establishing the Safe Areas (819, 824 and 836) call for disarmament of those within the Areas.
The very process by which the Safe Areas were created illustrates, moreover, how there is no monolithic "UN" which pursues policies with one mind. The following description is taken from Blood and Vengeance by Chuck Sudetic:
As dawn broke over Bosnia on Saturday, April 17 , Sarajevo radio's morning news bulletin reported that the UN Security Council had just passed a resolution calling for the Serbs and the Muslims to treat Srebrenica as a UN "safe area." The choice of this term, "safe area," was a part of a diplomatic compromise. Led by Diego Arria of Venezuela, diplomats from countries that belonged to the Non-Aligned Movement and supported Bosnia's Muslim-dominated government, had summoned the Security Council members together at four o'clock Friday afternoon New York Time and demanded that the UN military force in Bosnia be given a mandate to fight to protect Srebrenica's people. They wanted the council to put Srebrenica under UN protection. When France, Britain and other European countries with troops in Bosnia inquired whether the countries of the Non-Aligned Movement would be willing to produce the soldiers and money needed to defend Srebrenica by force of arms, Arria and his colleagues agreed to scratch the words "protected area" from the draft resolution, and with them the demand for military action, and insert in their place the words "safe area."
The debate on this amended draft resolution dragged on for hours behind closed doors. The British and French delegations warned time and again that the UN Security Council should never make, or even seem to make, promises it could not keep; but the diplomats from the Non-Aligned movement countries refused to withdraw the resolution or delay the vote until after the negotiations on Srebrenica's demilitarization, which were to begin Saturday afternoon in Sarajevo. [...] The diplomats who wrote and voted in favor of UN Security Council resolution 819 did not bother to define the term "safe area" or identify just who was supposed to make it safe. The resolution did not delineate any territory. It did not hint at the duty the UN owed the safe area or the people inside it. [p.206]
Following the rejection of the Vance-Owen Peace Plan (VOPP) by the Bosnian Serb parliament on 06-May-1993, the Security Council passed resolution 824, declaring the towns of Žepa, Goražde, Bihać, Tuzla and Sarajevo to also be safe areas. Sudetic writes:
The countries of the Non-Aligned Movement seized the opportunity to renew their demand that the Security Council give the UN military force in Bosnia the mandate and the means to defend the safe areas if the Serbs attacked. This issue came to a head a month later, during the closed-door discussions preceding the passage of Resolution 836, the Security Council's most controversial decision concerning the Bosnian war.
France, Russia, Great Britain, and Spain, the very countries whose ambassadors had given the firmest public assurances that Resolution 836 would guarantee the security of Srebrenica and the other safe areas, had inserted language into the resolution that hollowed out the apparent duty of the UN military force to protect them. The resolution was intentionally crafted to say that the UN military force would only "deter" attacks against the safe areas; and the wording says nothing explicit about fighting to protect or defend them.
The frustrated diplomats from the Non-Aligned Movement countries understood that the resolution had no backbone. But they exacerbated the situation by demanding that, since the UN military force was not going to be required to defend the Security Council's safe areas, the council should at least require General Mladić to withdraw his forces from around the areas and allow Bosnia's army to maintain its presence inside them to provide a modicum of protection. The rest of the Security Council members accepted this compromise wording and thereby presented Muslim commanders with the opportunity to mount offensive operations from within the safe areas and leave it to the UN commanders on the ground to persuade Mladić that it was not a good idea to retaliate against the Muslims.
The commander of UN forces in the entire former Yugoslavia, a Swedish general named Lars Eric Wahlgren, warned the Security Council that garrisoning the Safe Areas with sufficient troops to provide a credible deterrent against Serb attack would require some 34,000 troops, at a projected annual cost of $1.7 bn. In this he was backed by the then-Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Kofi Annan, as well as Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali. The Security Council, however, refused to listen, and plumped for the "Light Option," authorizing only 7,600 troops to man the Safe Areas. Or perhaps they did listen, since none of the member states on the council volunteered so much as one of their own soldiers for the job.
At this point, national pride and a certain measure of esprit de corps require that I respond to some more of Kopel's claims. First, this one:
A large share of the blame for Srebrenica was placed on the Dutch government and ill-prepared Dutch "peacekeepers," as detailed in an April 2002 report by the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation. Dutch prime minister Wim Kok — and his entire cabinet — resigned in shame a week later.
A quick perusal of the report summary shows that the report in fact attached no blame to Dutchbat III, stating:
It performed its task, but that came nowhere near the desired effect. This is more the fault of the inadequate resources and the policy of the UN and UNPROFOR. Dutchbat grew less and less able to carry out its task.
Insofar as the report placed blame on the Dutch government, it was for committing the infantry battalions of the 11th Airmobile Brigade to a job that everybody else had refused to take. The report placed the blame for the massacre squarely where it belonged: at the door of the VRS. The report's conclusions, in and of themselves, were not sufficiently severe to cause the collapse of the "Purple 2" coalition government. The fact was that the coalition had already become unstable previously due to various internal conflicts, and the report was, depending on whom you ask, either the straw that broke the camel's back or a convenient pretext to pull the plug.
Later, Kopel claims:
[I]ndeed, on July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serb forces entered Srebrenica without resistance from Bosniac or U.N. forces; not a shot was fired.
This is technically correct, in that neither the ABiH 28th Operational Group nor UNPROFOR Dutchbat III fired a shot on 11-Jul-1995. Kopel, however, glosses over the fact that the VRS assault started five days earlier, and that during the intervening period both the Muslim and Dutch troops did, in actual fact, offer armed resistance to the VRS. From the aforementioned NIOD report, Part III, Chapter 6, Sections 10 and 12:
At around 05.00 hours [on 10-Jul-1995], the ABiH launched a counter offensive in the direction of Pusmulici, at the height of Zivkovo Brdo and Zeleni Jadar. Some ABiH units succeeded at Zivkovo Bdro to attack the rear of the VRS and to isolate them, while other units attacked the VRS as a decoy. The counter offensive was successful and forced the VRS to withdraw. [...] The joy amongst the ABiH was short lived. The VRS brought reinforcements and launched a fresh assault in the afternoon. In the battles that ensued, sections of the ABiH lines were unable to withstand the assault. According to ABiH reports, there was even hand-to-hand fighting. The VRS shelled the lines forcing large numbers of ABiH soldiers to abandon their positions. That resulted in disorganisation and breaking up of units. [...] The early-morning victory of the ABiH was therefore a temporary one and could not be turned into real gain and the effect of the ABiH counter offensive was lost.
At 19.13 hours [on 10-Jul-1995] Hageman [second in command of B-Company and commander of the Dutchbat blocking position] was instructed by [B-Company commander Captain] Groen to withdraw blocking position Bravo 1 in the direction of the city’s market square. After that the teams of blocking positions Bravo 3 and Bravo 4 also began to withdraw towards the market square in Srebrenica. [...] While withdrawing Bravo 4, Lieutenant Mustert ordered direct .50 machine gun fire on the VRS units across the open terrain on foot. His intention was to secure the withdrawal by forcing the VRS to take cover. [...] Bravo 3 received a report from the ABiH to the effect that approximately eighty VRS infantrymen were hidden behind the crest of a hill and would presently become visible. Hageman then instructed Lieutenant Van Duijn to fire over the heads of the VRS as soon as they appeared on the crest of the hill to make them aware of the UN positions. The Bosnian Serbs then retreated beyond the crest of the hill and out of sight. [...] Hageman ordered the Bravo 1 crew to fire the .50 machine gun over the heads of the Bosnian Serbs. After that they did indeed fire using approximately half a case of ammunition, before the APC in question pulled back to two hundred metres from the market square.
Evidently, Kopel needs to learn that when you cite a source, it's a good idea to actually read it first.
Kopel's piece is, frankly, simply incoherent. He asserts that "the U.N.'s disarmament policy" facilitated the Srebrenica massacre by stripping those inside the enclave of the means with which to defend themselves. Yet he also notes that "While the U.N. peacekeepers had collected some of the Bosniacs' weapons, the Bosniacs retained the better ones" with which, to paraphrase Sudetic, the Muslim commanders could mount offensive operations from within the safe areas, thereby inviting Serb retaliation. So according to Kopel, the safe areas were a death trap because those within had been disarmed, and because they had not. He holds up the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of Sierra Leone as an example of an outlaw armed group against whom the UN failed to act effectively, but condemns the Programme of Action which is intended to make it more difficult precisely for groups like the RUF to acquire weapons. Evidently, Kopel approached this piece from a preconceived dislike of "the UN," and is seeking to rationalize it by latching onto any complaints (real or imagined) he can conjure up, even when those complaints are mutually exclusive.
As a former UN staff member, I would be the last to assert that the United Nations system is without its flaws. But to understand the mistakes "the UN" has made in the past, one has to understand how the system is set up, and this, critics of "the UN"—such as Kopel and LaPierre—refuse to do. First, one has to understand that "the United Nations" is not a monolithic entity, but is actually composed of almost all the nations of the world (hence the name). The Secretary-General's job is not to set policy, but to carry out the policy formed by those member states currently serving on the Security Council, and to make matters worse, the member states which take part in setting policy are not actually obliged to provide the means to implement it. The "Safe Areas" policy provides a highly illustrative example, with the Non-Aligned Movement pushing for a robust mandate but not willing to put their own troops in harm's way to enforce that mandate; and if Britain and France thought resolution 819 was such a bad idea, why didn't they just use their precious veto power to stop it? This is the biggest problem with the UN: the tendency of its member states to declare a collective responsibility to take action, but to shirk their individual share of that collective responsibility, and to blame "the UN" for failing to act (a process which Dutch journalist Linda Polman has described as "blue rinsing"). After all, when everybody is to blame, nobody is to blame; except, of course, whoever was fool enough to let himself get stuck actually trying to do the job everybody else said needed doing (but didn't want to do themselves).
Given this culture, it is not unreasonable to be skeptical about some large-scale initiative conducted under the aegis of the UN; to ask questions, like "what exactly do you mean by 'illicit'?" But LaPierre and Kopel aren't interested in asking questions because they've already made up their minds. By pointedly ignoring the presence of the word "illicit" in the name of the UN Conferences on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons, they are deliberately missing the point; furthermore, by opposing any measures to limit access to firearms by terrorists and other organized criminals, they are being, to paraphrase George Orwell, objectively pro-crime.