The U.S. didn’t join the U.K., France and other major Western allies at the United Nations today to sign the first international treaty regulating the $85 billion-a-year global arms trade.
The absence of the world’s top arms dealer at a morning ceremony in New York drawing about 60 nations casts a shadow over a decades-long push to stop illegal cross-border shipments of conventional weapons. Some of the world’s most violent nations, from drug-plagued Mexico to the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, are among the signatories.
While supporters say the treaty wouldn’t affect U.S. domestic sales or impinge on the constitutional right to bear arms, it would be a political minefield at home. The accord wouldn’t muster enough votes for approval by the U.S. Senate, and the National Rifle Association, which says it has more than 4.5 million members, has lobbied against it.
“I suspect they probably took a decision that, politically, it made sense not to completely alienate people in Congress on something that, in their opinion, doesn’t matter when they sign it as long as they sign it,” said Adotei Akwei, Amnesty International USA’s managing director for government relations, in a May 31 telephone interview.
After years of stalled discussions about a multilateral arms sales agreement, it wasn’t until Obama took office in 2009 that the U.S. reversed long-standing opposition to a treaty.
Even as he broke with tradition, Obama is in no rush to sign it.
“We look forward to signing it as soon as the process of conforming the official translations is completed satisfactorily,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said today in a statement.
Advocates of the treaty, which requires ratification by at least 50 nations to go into effect, are under no illusion about an early Senate ratification even when the current administration gets around to signing it later this year, as predicted by nongovernmental bodies such as Amnesty International and Oxfam.
The atmosphere on Capitol Hill toward treaty ratifications is “absolutely toxic,” Akwei said. The U.S. also isn’t a party to the International Criminal Court in The Hague that seeks to bring war criminals to trial.
“Ratification by the U.S. is a long-term strategy and it can take 10 to 15 years,” he said.
For now, the U.S. is happy to lend its symbolic seal of approval while reiterating that much of the regulation outlined in the treaty has already been put in practice by the U.S. in its overseas sales of small arms, missile launchers, tanks, warships and attack helicopters.
The treaty was approved two months ago by more than two-thirds of the 193-member UN General Assembly even as Iran, Syria and North Korea voted against the accord, and 23 countries, including Russia, a major arms dealer, abstained.
The next step is for UN members to sign it, as many are doing today, and then for their legislators to ratify the pact.
In the U.S. Senate, a two-thirds majority would be needed for Senate ratification. On March 23, senators voted 53-46 for a symbolic measure opposing U.S. participation in the treaty. Eight Democrats and all 45 Senate Republicans opposed it.
Thomas Countryman, the assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation who led the U.S. delegation at the treaty negotiations, told the Atlantic Council in Washington on May 15 that the U.S. “will sign in the very near future.”
As the U.S. point person on the treaty, Countryman has said the agreement would reduce worldwide violence by curbing black-market arms sales. The U.S. already has the highest standards in the world for regulating weaponry, he said.
While the treaty seeks to prevent conventional arms from falling in the wrong hands, it won’t have an immediate effect on current conflicts such as the crisis in Syria, where a two-year conflict has killed at least 80,000 people.
Yet the mere signing of such a treaty “gives hope to the millions affected by armed violence every day,” said Anna MacDonald, Oxfam’s head of arms control.
“Gunrunners and dictators have been sent a clear message that their time of easy access to weapons is up,” she said in a statement. “For generations the arms trade has been shrouded in secrecy, but from now on it will be open to scrutiny.”