Kerry Signs Arms Treaty Opposed by Majority in Senate

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry today signed the first international treaty regulating the $85 billion-a-year global arms trade, an agreement that a majority in the U.S. Senate is on record as opposing.

After backing the treaty in talks at the United Nations, President Barack Obama’s administration was conspicuous in its absence in June when the U.K., France and other Western allies signed the accord.

Kerry said at the time that the U.S. planned to sign the treaty, which 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.

“This treaty is about keeping weapons out of the hands of terrorists and rogue actors,” Kerry said at a UN signing ceremony today in New York. “This treaty strengthens our security, builds global security without undermining the legitimate international trade in conventional arms which allows each country to provide for its own defense.”

It was adopted by the UN General Assembly in April on a 154-3 tally, with only Iran, Syria and North Korea voting no. Twenty-three countries abstained.

The accord confronts opposition in the U.S. Senate and has dim prospects for ratification there. In March, senators voted 53-46 for a symbolic measure opposing U.S. participation in the treaty. A two-thirds Senate majority is needed for ratification.

NRA Opposition

While the administration says the treaty wouldn’t affect U.S. domestic sales or impinge on the constitutional right to bear arms, the National Rifle Association, which says it has more than 4.5 million members, has lobbied against it.

The signing “is a direct dismissal of the bipartisan Senate majority that rejects this treaty,” Kansas Republican Senator Jerry Moran said today in a statement.

Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, released a letter to Obama today warning the administration against taking steps to implement the treaty without Senate action.

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.

Kerry’s signing provides a symbolic seal of approval. U.S. law already incorporates many of the restrictions the accord seeks to encourage worldwide.

Mass Atrocities

In a letter to Obama last month, the leaders of 33 human rights, development, security and religious groups said that signing the accord “would be a powerful step” demonstrating the U.S. “commitment to preventing mass atrocities and protecting civilians from armed conflict around the globe.”

The groups included Amnesty International, the Arms Control Association, the Episcopal Church, Genocide Watch, Human Rights Watch, the National Association of Evangelicals, Oxfam America, the United Methodist Church, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The U.S. is the 91st country to sign and four countries have ratified the treaty, which goes into force after ratification by 50 countries, the State Department said today in a fact sheet.

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