UN approves Arms Trade Treaty. Will US Senate ratify it?

The Arms Trade Treaty, the first international regulations of the multibillion-dollar trade, passed by a 154-to-3 vote. Some members of Congress have opposed it.

Adam Rountree / AP / File
The U.N. General Assembly, meeting here at the U.N. headquarters in New York, overwhelmingly approved the first U.N. treaty regulating the multibillion-dollar international arms trade on April 2, a goal sought for over a decade to try to keep illicit weapons out of the hands of terrorists, insurgent fighters and organized crime. The resolution adopting the landmark treaty was approved by a vote of 154 to 3 with 23 abstentions. Iran, North Korea and Syria voted 'No.'

With only a trio of isolated states opposing, the United Nations approved Tuesday an Arms Trade Treaty that backers say will help regulate international arms flows while reducing firearms violence and the world’s worst human rights violations.

It is the first international regulations of the multibillion-dollar arms trade. In a statement hailing passage of the treaty, Secretary of State John Kerry said 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.”

Mindful of opposition to the treaty in some quarters of Congress and among pro-gun organizations including the National Rifle Association, Secretary Kerry noted that the treaty protects “the sovereign right of states to conduct legitimate arms trade” and each state’s right to regulate arms as it sees fit within its own borders.

“Nothing in this treaty could ever infringe on the rights of American citizens under our domestic law or the Constitution, including the Second Amendment,” Kerry said.

The Arms Trade Treaty appeared to be on the road to approval by consensus at a negotiating conference at the UN last week, but it was held up at the last minute Thursday by North Korea, Iran, and Syria – the same three states that voted no Tuesday. The trio’s objections prompted the vote in the General Assembly, where approval by two-thirds of the member states was required. The vote was 154 to 3.

Over the course of two weeks of negotiations last month, the war in Syria was repeatedly cited as an example of how the treaty would – or wouldn’t – help stem violence and grave human rights violations in conflict.

Supporters, including an array of human rights organizations, noted that the treaty would explicitly prohibit states from transferring conventional arms if they have knowledge at the time of sale or transfer that the arms are likely to be used in committing genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes.

Some opponents said the treaty was unlikely to stop the flow of arms to either side in the Syrian conflict. Others said the treaty could have the effect of reducing arms transfers from law-abiding arms providers while driving arms flows deeper underground.

But on Tuesday, the organization Human Rights First in Washington insisted passage of the treaty is good news for Syria’s civilian population because it “prohibits” the arms transfers that Russia and Iran have been making to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Although “morally reprehensible,” the arms transfers from Russia and Iran to the Syrian regime were up to now “deemed legal,” Human Rights First said. “Today,” it continued, “the Arms Trade Treaty changes that reality by setting in place an internationally agreed standard that explicitly prohibits such transfers.”

Despite Kerry’s assurances that the treaty won’t have any impact on the US domestic arms market, some members of Congress have opposed it.

US Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas warned his constituents that any of them considering purchasing an imported weapon – about 35 percent of firearms on the US market are imported – should consider their rights threatened by the treaty.

Another Republican senator, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, successfully attached an amendment to the Senate budget bill passed last month that would prohibit the United States from signing on to the treaty.

After Tuesday’s vote, however, some treaty supporters, including the National Security Network in Washington, are wondering aloud if domestic naysayers are going to want to stand with the likes of North Korea, Iran, and Syria to oppose the treaty.

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