UN arms trade treaty: Will it receive US Senate approval?

Why the new initiative is so controversial among US conservatives.

Visitors look at a miniature model of a self propelled artillery vehicle on display during the International Defense Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Center in February of this year.

The First International Treaty governing the multibillion-dollar arms trade was passed overwhelmingly by the UN General Assembly April 2, after seven years of talks. Supporters say it will help curb the flow of weapons to human rights abusers, but its prospects for passage in the US Senate are dim. Here's why.  

Q: What does the treaty aim to accomplish?

The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) creates an agreed standard for transfers of any type of conventional weapon – from pistols to warplanes – and requires nations to review all cross-border arms contracts to ensure munitions will not be used in human rights abuses, terrorism, and violations of humanitarian law.

The treaty, which has taken seven years to negotiate, won't be in effect for years and has no enforcement mechanism as of yet.

"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, chief of the conventional arms branch of the United Nations 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."

In that sense the ATT is seen by many as more of a human rights treaty than a trade agreement.

Q: Who opposes the treaty? Why?

International obstacles to the treaty have centered on the position of major arms state exporters like Russia, which is trying to revive its role in the international arms trade. Russia also shares Chinese concerns that the treaty will still allow for the arming of nonstate actors seeking to overthrow regimes such as those governing some of China's African client states. (China and Russia abstained from the UN vote.)

Other opponents say the treaty may have the effect of reducing arms transfers from law-abiding arms providers while driving arms flows deeper underground.

In the United States, the gun lobby has been a major opponent of the ATT. The US alone is responsible for 30 percent of global arms exports.

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, went further: He successfully attached an amendment to the Senate budget bill passed last month that would prohibit the US from signing on to the treaty.

The National Rifle Association sees the ATT as an attempt to control personal weapons. NRA offshoots, including the World For­um on Shooting Activities, blast the ATT as a veiled attempt by governments to deny citizens their right to guns.

For many conservatives, the arms treaty pushes two hot buttons – the United Nations, which some fear has the potential to supersede US national sovereignty, and gun rights.

Q: What do proponents of the treaty say in reply to such fears?

US Secretary of State John Kerry took pains to try to reassure gun advocates that the treaty will have no impact on the US domestic arms market. 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.

"This treaty is only about the international transfer of civilian weapons," says Scott Stedjan, a senior policy adviser at Oxfam America. "US gun rights do not involve weapons flowing from one border to another border."

Q: What are the prospects for the US Senate ratifying the ATT?

In the short term, not good. More than 50 senators signed a petition months ago indicating their opposition to the ATT, and the treaty requires a yes vote by 67 of the 100 senators. Some treaty proponents suggest that the fact that Iran, North Korea, and Syria were the only nations to vote against the treaty might make some senators rethink their opposition.

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