UN Arms Trade Pact Passes Over Objections by Iran, Syria

The first international treaty regulating the $70 billion global arms trade was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly yesterday in a vote that came amid a U.S. debate on gun control.

The treaty was approved by a 154-3 tally, easily more than two-thirds of the 193-member General Assembly. Iran, Syria and North Korea voted against the pact, and 23 countries abstained.

While President Barack Obama’s administration backed the treaty, ratification by the U.S. Senate is in doubt and the pact might not be submitted to the chamber. The National Rifle Association has lobbied against the accord, and the Senate already has cast a symbolic vote against it.

Hammered out after years of negotiations, the agreement seeks to stop cross-border shipments of conventional weapons -- from small arms and missile launchers to tanks, warships and attack helicopters -- that could enable war crimes, terrorism or human rights violations.

“The United States is pleased that the United Nations General Assembly has approved a strong, effective and implementable arms trade treaty,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. “It will help reduce the risk that international transfers of conventional arms will be used to carry out the world’s worst crimes, including terrorism, genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.”

The next step is for UN members to sign and ratify the pact. When at least 50 countries have done so, the treaty will go into effect.

Obama’s Role

After years of stalled discussions about a multilateral arms sales agreement, it wasn’t until Obama took office in 2009 that the U.S., the world’s largest global arms exporter, reversed long-standing opposition to a treaty.

While Obama will sign the treaty, the administration doesn’t currently plan to submit it for Senate ratification, according to a U.S. official familiar with the matter who asked not be named discussing internal deliberations. White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to comment today on the administration’s intentions.

Thomas Countryman, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation who led the U.S. delegation to the treaty negotiations, has said the agreement would reduce worldwide violence by cracking down on black-market arms sales.

U.S. Standards

The U.S. already has the highest standards in the world for regulating weaponry and the treaty would bring much of the rest of the world closer to meeting those standards, he said.

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.

“It’s time the Obama administration recognizes it is already a non-starter,” the measure’s sponsor, Oklahoma Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, said in a statement.

“The passage of a treaty that Iran, Syria and North Korea have made clear they have no intention of abiding by will only serve to constrain law-abiding democracies like the United States,” Kansas Republican Senator Jerry Moran said in a statement. “The U.S. Senate is united in strong opposition to a treaty that puts us on level ground with dictatorships who abuse human rights and arms terrorists.”

NRA Opposition

The National Rifle Association, a gun-rights lobbying group based in Fairfax, Virginia, has fought the UN rules, saying they would impinge on the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment right to bear arms, though domestic gun sales were excluded from the proposed treaty and wouldn’t be affected.

Obama has pushed for stricter U.S. gun control laws since the December shootings at a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school that killed 20 children and six educators. Momentum for his push has flagged.

The Senate stripped provisions out of an omnibus gun bill that would have banned the sale of “assault weapons” and limited the size of magazines. The bill includes expanded background checks, a measure to curb gun trafficking and one to increase grants for school safety upgrades.

To attract U.S. backing for the global treaty, ammunition, parts and components were left out of the broad scope of the treaty. Instead, countries would be required to “maintain a national control system to regulate” those exports.

“The voices of reason triumphed over skeptics, treaty opponents and dealers in death to establish a revolutionary treaty that constitutes a major step toward keeping assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons out of the hands of despots and warlords who use them to kill and maim civilians, recruit child soldiers and commit other serious abuses,” Frank Jannuzi, head of Amnesty International’s Washington office, said in a statement.

Current Conflicts

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, according to human-rights groups such as Oxfam.

Russia, which abstained from yesterday’s vote, and Iran supply weapons to the Syrian government. The Russia government has a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus and billions of dollars of arms contracts with the Middle Eastern state.

The five veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council - - China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. -- account for about 60 percent of the global arms trade.

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