UN Arms Treaty Passes Overwhelmingly

May 2013

Frequently the UN is on the cutting edge of major initiatives regarding international peace, economic and social development, climate change and human rights. One recent bombshell took place on April 2, when the United States, along with 153 other member states of the UN General Assembly, posted a landslide victory to adopt a treaty to regulate the international trade of conventional weapons. Although 23 countries abstained, only Syria, North Korea and Iran voted against it. This victory was a major achievement that was resurrected like the mythological Phoenix Bird after seven contentious years of discussion, recrimination, and often campaigns of misinformation and disinformation.

The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) covers six comprehensive areas:

-- States are required to establish regulations for arms imports and exports in eight major categories: battle tanks; armored combat vehicles; large-caliber artillery systems; combat aircraft; attack helicopters; warships; missiles and missile launchers; and small arms and light weapons;

-- States, which have the option to authorize arms sales, are required to assess the potential that the transfer ‘could be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian law’ and ‘international human rights law,’ terrorism or organized crime. Additionally, states should review the risk of serious acts of gender-based violence or acts of violence against women and children. If there is compelling evidence that any of these potentially dangerous situations are present, they are required not to authorize the export;

-- If the state ‘has knowledge’ that the transfer of arms or exports of ammunition or weapons parts and components would be used in the commission of ‘genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians, or other war crimes,’ the state is required to prohibit the transfer;

-- States are required to establish effective regulations on the export of ammunition and weapons parts and components. This is extremely critical since perpetrators can continue a conflict long after they receive the initial weapons, if they can secure ammunition and spare parts;

-- An annual report is required on all arms transfers. This will show states are reacting legally and morally, as well as to strengthen the transparency and public accountability for their actions; and

-- There will be regular conferences of states parties to review implementation of the treaty and developments in the field of conventional arms. This is one of the major provisions that will indicate a state’s commitment to the treaty, encourage the sharing of information, discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the treaty and allow states to consider new types of conventional weapons that may come into play in the future.

One remaining major obstacle may be the U.S. Senate which has to approve the international treaty by 67 votes, out of a total of 100 Senators. At present, it is highly doubtful the Senate would approve it. Immediately prior to the UN vote, the Senate voted 53-46 on March 23, for a nonbinding amendment to its budget resolution calling for the treaty’s rejection. The basic argument was that it would infringe on U.S. gun rights.

Supporters of the ATT have argued persuasively that the treaty has absolutely nothing to do with the U.S. domestic gun policies and would not encroach upon the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to bear arms. The ATT applies only to international transfers of conventional arms and explicitly mentions, ‘the sovereign right of any State to regulate and control conventional arms’ within its territory.

Running parallel with this disinformation campaign in the Senate, prompted to a large degree by the National Rifle Association, is a horrific lack of knowledge about UN programs and treaties, and an almost knee-jerk skepticism of and rejection of any UN proposal. The sentiment in the Senate is not synchronized with the American public that, in one recent Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research Opinion Poll, indicated that 86% of the people queried supported the US actively participating in UN programs.

As another stark example, one need only to look at the Senate vote in December that rejected a UN treaty to ban discrimination against people with disabilities. It was defeated 61-38. Although key supporters, such as President Obama, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, (R-KS), and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) strongly supported it, the opponents erroneously argued that it would undermine US sovereignty, create new abortion rights and restrict people from homeschooling disabled children; all bogus charges, according to the supporters. In essence, the treaty would have extended the standards covered in the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act to people worldwide.

There are four major issues to consider in the future as they pertain to the ATT:

First, the ATT will have to be monitored closely to check member state’s compliance, how effective it is in reducing conflicts and devastation and if there are any unintended consequences. Many of the African countries, which have suffered the brunt of illegal arms sales, argued that the treaty should have been even stronger.

Second, the ATT will be open for signature by various governments on June 3rd. Once fifty countries adopt the treaty, which should be easy to secure given the huge vote, it will go into effect. The American arms industry accounts for about 30% of the whopping $70 billion annual trade in conventional arms. Close attention will be paid both to how this industry responds and how it is affected by this treaty.

Third, as with many UN treaties, one weakness is that it does not have an enforcement mechanism. To be effective, close monitoring and peer pressure will be critical among the member states. At times, the UN is blamed for the failure of a particular program or treaty. In reality, it is the member states that spell success or failure for the undertaking. The UN is the framework within which the 193 members of the General Assembly come together to determine whether and how they will or will not agree to a proposal.

Fourth, hopefully the media will get more involved in providing coverage of this landmark treaty. During the discussions and even after the vote, the vast majority of the US media, albeit there were some exceptions, were totally lacking in disseminating the information. Many of the media outlets that did cover this monumental decision buried it on page A-4 or gave it short-shrift. Given this lack of coverage by the media, it is more understandable how Americans may support the UN, but still not understand the international organization very well.

The second UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold (1953-1961) said, ‘The UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.’ For the millions of child soldiers and innocent civilians adversely affected by illegal firearms and civil conflicts, it may very well be that the Arms Trade Treaty will save them from a hell-on-earth. Time will tell.