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As Arms Trade Treaty nears vote at UN, critics in US see a 'gun grab'

UN is set to vote Thursday on a proposed Arms Trade Treaty to regulate global imports and exports of conventional weapons. Backers see a way to prevent human rights abuses. Critics see red flags, including curtailed access for Americans to imported guns.

By Staff writer / March 26, 2013

An attendee holds a handgun at the 7th annual Border Security Expo in Phoenix, Arizona, March 12. The Arms Trade Treaty, which is set to come to a vote among UN member countries Thursday, would cover trade in conventional weapons ranging from handguns to weapons of war such as missiles and tanks.

Joshua Lott/Reuters/File

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United Nations, N.Y.

Right as Washington is preoccupied with a series of gun-control measures, the United Nations is nearing approval of an Arms Trade Treaty that opponents in America's gun-rights community say constitutes a back-door gun grab that will trample Second Amendment rights.

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Supporters of the treaty, which is set to come to a vote among UN member countries Thursday, decry such arguments as fear-mongering and nonsense. Rather, they say, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is a long-overdue regulation of the global arms import and export trade that will help curtail the flow of weapons into conflict zones and the hands of human rights violators.

The treaty would cover trade in conventional weapons ranging from handguns to weapons of war such as missiles and tanks. It would direct countries exporting or importing arms to assess the risk that such weapons would end up being used to commit terrorist attacks or to engage in human rights abuses including torture and genocide. 

“We have agreements on the standards for trade in everything else that crosses borders, from T-shirts and iron ore to cars and wheat,” says Daniel Prins, secretary general of the ATT conference now under way in New York and chief of the conventional arms branch of the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs. “The arms trade has been an exception to that, but the ATT would provide a global set of standards for sending arms to another country.”

That “set of standards” has nothing to do with setting firearms quality or regulating models and calibers. “This is not a treaty about banning a particular category of weapons,” Mr. Prins notes. Instead, the ATT would establish a “set of standards” for the import and export of arms, with an eye to reducing the flow of arms into conflict zones or into countries where the arms are likely to be used by organized crime or in a way that violates human rights.

For example, the ATT aims to curtail the “shopping around” that often occurs when regimes in conflict with some of their own citizens or nonstate groups are denied coveted weapons by one arms-trading country.

In that sense the ATT is more of a human rights treaty than it is a trade agreement. And that aspect is what gives the ATT its most emphatic advocates –and some of its toughest critics.

“For major exporters, every arms sale is already a balancing act, and what we’re trying to do [with the ATT] is raise the profile of human rights in that balancing act,” says Natalie Goldring, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies who is working with the Control Arms coalition of more than 100 international groups to push for a strong ATT agreement.

Organizations from Oxfam to Amnesty International are pressing for a treaty they say would enhance human rights around the world by reducing arms trafficking and the diversion of legitimately acquired weaponry into illicit hands. “Any step toward restraining the illicit sale and transfer of weapons used to commit crimes is a good move forward, and the world could use a lot more steps in the direction of ending human rights abuses,” said Amnesty USA’s chief of campaigns and programs, Michelle Ringuette, recently.

This week, advocates warned that negotiations have led to a watered-down treaty text, and they are demanding a return to stronger standards before the ATT is put to a consensus vote Thursday. Most observers expect a treaty will adopted.

But others say a treaty that aims to curtail the arms trade by using a set of UN-established standards should actually give advocates of universal rights pause.

“This [ATT] is a human rights instrument; it’s being promoted for human rights reasons,” says Theodor Bromund, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “But if you look at how human rights are already dealt with in the UN system, it’s not very encouraging.” Bodies such as the Human Rights Council tend to focus their attention on “violators” like Israel or the US, he says, while members of what he calls the “club of dictators” see their violations overlooked and are even sometimes rewarded with seats on human rights bodies.

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