U.N. approves global arms treaty


A delegate takes photographs of semi automatic weapons at the International Defense Exhibition and Seminar 'Arms for Peace' exhibition, in Pakistan. The United Nations General Assembly has passed the first-ever treaty to regulate international arms sales. (Rehan Khan/EPA)
April 2, 2013

The U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to create the first treaty regulating the international arms trade, a landmark decision that imposes new constraints on the sale of conventional arms to governments and armed groups that commit war crimes, genocide and other mass atrocities.

The vote was hailed by arms-control advocates and scores of governments, including the United States, as a major step in the global effort to put in place basic controls on the $70 billion international arms trade. But the treaty was denounced by Iran, North Korea and Syria, which maintain that it imposes restrictions that prevent smaller states from buying and selling weapons to ensure their self-defense.

The treaty covers a wide range of conventional weapons, including battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, missiles and small arms. Under the accord, these items cannot be transferred to countries that are subject to U.N. arms embargoes or to states that promote genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes.

Although legally binding on states that ratify it, the treaty does not establish an enforcement agency. Instead, signatories will be required to pass new laws and regulations governing their arms trade and national authorities will be responsible for enforcing them.

The United States, which co-sponsored the treaty, said U.S. agencies will review the accord before it is presented to President Obama for signature. The treaty would then require ratification by a two-thirds vote of the Senate.

North Korea is making more nuclear threats and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon says the crisis has gone too far.

The National Rifle Association contended during negotiations that the treaty would weaken Second Amendment gun rights in the United States. The powerful gun lobby has pledged to fight the treaty’s ratification in the Senate.

U.S. officials and several nongovernmental organizations, including the American Bar Association, have argued that the treaty would have no effect on U.S. gun rights.

The treaty contains language recognizing “legitimate trade and lawful ownership, and use of certain conventional arms for recreational, cultural, historical and sporting activities.”

On Tuesday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry welcomed the approval of the treaty, describing it as a “strong, effective and implementable” tool that can “strengthen global security while protecting the sovereign right of states to conduct legitimate arms trade.”

The United Nations’ 193-member assembly voted 154 to 3 to adopt the treaty. There were 23 abstentions, including from major arms traders such as China, India and Russia, as well as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are supplying weapons to opposition groups in Syria. The treaty will not go into force until 90 days after it is ratified by at least 50 member states.

The vote came four days after Iran, Syria and North Korea — governments that are likely to be targeted by the new measures — blocked an attempt to adopt the treaty by consensus. They said the treaty is unfair to them and is riddled with deficiencies. Iran and North Korea are under arms embargoes.

Some countries had broader misgivings. India, Egypt and Indonesia were among the nations that said the treaty would grant an unfair advantage to the world’s largest arms exporters.

India’s chief negotiator, Sujata Mehta, said Tuesday in explaining her government’s decision to abstain that the treaty “is weak on terrorism and non-state actors.” She previously objected that the “weight of obligations is tilted against importing states.”

Iran, meanwhile, protested last week that the treaty provided specific protections for U.S. gun owners and didn’t do so for people living under foreign occupation.

Along with new laws, the treaty would require signatories to establish a national record-keeping system to track the trade in conventional arms. They would also have to ensure that weapons are not illegally diverted to terrorist organizations or other armed groups. In addition, governments would conduct risk assessments to determine whether arms exports were being used to abuse human rights, particularly those of women or children.

The treaty also calls for greater law enforcement cooperation between countries, providing an opportunity for the United States and other nations to help foreign governments draft effective laws and to apply pressure to enforce the statutes.

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