Negotiations on an international treaty to regulate the $70 billion arms trade began today at the United Nations, bringing more than 150 countries together in New York over objections from the National Rifle Association.
As the world’s biggest arms manufacturer, the U.S. position will be watched as nine days of discussions unfold at the UN on how to stop conventional weapons -- from small arms and missile launchers to tanks, warships and attack helicopters -- from falling in the wrong hands and fueling armed conflicts, such as those in Africa and the Middle East.
While supporters including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry say a treaty wouldn’t impinge on the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment right to bear arms, the talk of arms regulation has agitated American gun-rights advocates led by the National Rifle Association, which claims more than 4 million members.
“Neither the United Nations, nor any other foreign influence, has the authority to meddle with the freedoms guaranteed by our Bill of Rights,” Wayne LaPierre, chief executive officer of the NRA, said in a July 14 address to the UN’s Arms Trade Treaty Conference. Calls and e-mails to the Fairfax, Virginia-based NRA on this week’s debate weren’t immediately returned.
The Obama administration has tried to prevent the UN debate from undermining its push for domestic gun control measures following the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre that left 20 children and six adults dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December.
“The United States could only be party to an arms trade treaty that addresses international transfers of conventional arms solely, and does not impose any new requirements on the U.S. domestic trade in firearms or on U.S. exporters,” Kerry said in a March 15 statement. “We will not support any treaty that would be inconsistent with U.S. law and the rights of American citizens under our Constitution.”
Separating the two issues has been difficult. At the last round of arms negotiations at the UN, in July, the U.S. asked for more time. Talks were delayed until after the November election that President Barack Obama won.
The NRA has said its concern is that inclusion in such a treaty of small arms -- such as AK-47 rifles, held by millions of American gun owners -- would set a precedent that could be used to sway the domestic gun-control argument. In his July address, LaPierre decried “such intense focus on record-keeping, oversight, inspections, supervision, tracking, tracing, surveillance, documentation, verification, paper trails and data banks.”
Among issues pending as the UN weighs the proposed treaty is whether ammunition will be included in the broad push to set standards and binding rules on cross-border transfers of light and heavy weaponry.
“Syria, Mali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sri Lanka are just a few recent examples where the world bore witness to the horrific human cost of a reckless global arms trade steeped in secrecy,” Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s secretary general, said in a statement.
Human-rights groups led by Amnesty and Oxfam say that the five veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council –- China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. –- accounted for about 60 percent of an arms trade that will generate revenue of $100 billion a year in the next four years.
In Syria, where a two-year conflict has killed 70,000 people, the violence has been fueled by arms transfers to both sides. It hasn’t been determined whether the treaty would cover arms transfers and gifts along with sales, which are bound by legal contracts. Russia has been supplying the Syrian government, while Gulf monarchies such as Saudi Arabia have been helping the opposition.
The treaty’s text “must introduce clear and strong rules governing the movement of arms and ammunition, with a clear obligation for states to refuse transfers where there is a substantial risk that those arms would be misused,” Oxfam said in a briefing paper ahead of the talks.
Discussions about a multilateral agreement governing international arms sales have been going on for more than a decade. It wasn’t until 2009, after Obama was inaugurated, that the U.S. reversed its long-standing opposition to a treaty, which would have little impact without the endorsement of the the world’s largest global arms exporter.
The Obama administration has sought to keep the international talks in New York separate from the discussions on steps to reduce domestic gun violence in Washington, where Vice President Joe Biden is the point man for anti-firearms initiatives.