The United States will sign the international Arms Trade Treaty on Wednesday, agreeing to the accord to stem the flow of weapons to human rights violators and conflict zones, over the strong opposition of the U.S. gun lobby, according to a senior State Department official.
The treaty, to be signed by Secretary of State John F. Kerry on behalf of President Obama, requires countries to put in place a system for keeping track of transfers of conventional weapons, from battle tanks and warships to small arms, and to ensure they are not sold to countries that are under international arms embargoes, that promote genocide or war crimes, or that might use them against protected civilians.
The National Rifle Association has said the treaty will be used to regulate civilian weapons and to create an “unacceptable” registry of civilian firearms purchasers.
The administration disagrees. The main purpose of the treaty is to “stem the international, illegal and illicit trade in conventional weapons that benefits terrorists and rogue agents,” said the official, who was authorized to announce the planned signing on the condition of anonymity.
“The treaty recognizes and protects the freedom of both individuals and states to obtain, possess and use arms for legitimate purposes,” the official said. The United States already has strict export controls, “which haven’t diminished one iota the ability of Americans to enjoy their rights under our Constitution.”
Amnesty International, which has been a leading sponsor of a two-decade international campaign to stem the international arms trade to human rights abusers, said “all Americans should celebrate” the administration decision to sign the accord.
The treaty will go into effect once it is signed and ratified by at least 50 U.N. member states. The United States will be the 89th country to sign the treaty, which was adopted in a 153 to 3 vote, with 20 abstentions, in April.
Although the treaty, the first to regulate the $70 billion annual arms trade, is considered historic, the names behind those numbers indicate why its implementation will be difficult.
Syria, North Korea and Iran, the three countries that voted against it, are all under international arms sanctions. The 20 abstentions included Russia and China, the world’s largest arms exporters along with the United States. Russia is Syria’s main arms supplier, China is North Korea’s, and North Korea itself is a weapons exporter.
Only four countries have ratified the treaty — Iceland, Nigeria, Guyana and the Caribbean island state of Antigua and Barbuda. U.S. ratification requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate, where many Republicans and some Democrats are strongly opposed, and the administration is unlikely to submit it in the near future.
In a statement issued late Tuesday, Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, warned Obama not to “take any executive action to implement this treaty, provisionally or otherwise, unless and until” the Senate has consented to it. The Senate, Corker said in a letter to Obama, “may not provide such consent.”
In a General Assembly address Tuesday, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan called the weapons trade a primary source of internal and cross-border violence in Nigeria and throughout West Africa. “It is regrettable that these scourges are sustained by unfettered access by non-state actors to illicit small arms and light weapons with which they foster insecurity and instability across our continent,” Jonathan said. “For us in Africa, these are the weapons of mass destruction.”
Weapons covered in the treaty include but are not limited to battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and missile launchers, and small arms and light weapons.
Anne Gearan at the United Nations contributed to this report.