U.S. Puts Condition on Joining Talks on Conventional-Arms Trade

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 16, 2009

UNITED NATIONS, Oct. 15 -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced late Wednesday that the United States is prepared to begin negotiations on a global treaty regulating trade in conventional weapons but said Washington would sign the accord only if all other states agreed.

The move marks a shift in policy from the Bush administration, which staunchly opposed U.N. negotiations to regulate the $55 billion-a-year arms trade. The Obama administration hopes it can use the talks to press other governments to adopt a rigorous system of export controls similar to one put in place to regulate U.S. arms exports.

"The United States is committed to actively pursuing a strong and robust treaty that contains the highest possible, legally binding standards for the international transfer of conventional weapons," Clinton said. But she said the United States would support the negotiations only if they are conducted under "the rule of consensus decision-making" needed to ensure universal compliance.

Argentina, Australia, Britain, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan and Kenya are drafting a U.N. General Assembly resolution that would call for formal negotiations on such a treaty, probably beginning in the spring. In a concession to the United States, the drafters have included language that would require the talks to proceed on a consensus basis. It would also leave it up to states to "exclusively" regulate the arms trade within their borders.

The provision was included to forestall criticism from U.S. conservatives that an arms trade treaty would be a first step toward regulating the U.S. arms trade.

John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the U.S. strategy is less about regulating the arms trade than building a case for restricting the domestic arms trade. "This has little or nothing to do with the international trade in conventional arms," he said. "This will strengthen the hand of a government that wants to regulate private ownership of firearms."

Supporters of the negotiations rejected Bolton's complaint.

"No government is discussing a treaty that would ever impact the right to bear arms, nor require regulation of domestic sales of arms," said Scott Stedjan, a senior policy adviser at the relief group Oxfam America. "This is totally about international transfer of arms so that they don't go to human rights abusers."

The United States is the world's largest supplier of conventional weapons, accounting last year for nearly 70 percent of the global arms sales on contracts valued at $37.8 billion. Italy and Russia were second and third, with $3.7 billion and $3.5 billion in arms sales, according to figures compiled by the Congressional Research Service.

Arms control experts and rights advocates welcomed the U.S. commitment to participate in U.N. talks, saying the negotiations could help impose some basic rules in an industry that operates in the shadows, fuels conflicts and provides arms to terrorist groups and insurgents.

But they expressed concern that the U.S. insistence on consensus would provide any state in the world with the power to veto such a treaty. "The U.S. goal to raise global standards is laudable, but its insistence on consensus is likely to prove counterproductive," said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. "It will give any country that wants to derail the process an opportunity to do so."

The United Nations first began work on a conventional-arms trade treaty in 2006, after 153 states adopted a General Assembly resolution calling for talks aimed at a 2012 U.N. Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty. The United States was the only country to vote against the resolution. But other arms suppliers, including China, Russia, Israel and Egypt, have been cool to the treaty, abstaining in two General Assembly votes aimed at moving the negotiations forward.

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