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Despite US Pressure to Weaken Provisions, UN Approves Arms Treaty

Lauren McCauley, staff writer

A 50mm machine gun mounted on an armored humvee. (Photo: Chris Devers via Flickr)

Despite the inability to pass any meaningful domestic gun control legislation, the US voted along with 153 other nation states on Tuesday to approve the first-ever treaty to regulate the global arms trade. 

“When you think of the huge economic interest and the political power in play for the big arms producers and exporters, this treaty is a tribute to both civil society who championed the idea to save lives and reduce human suffering as well as the governments who heeded that call,” said Widney Brown, senior director of International Law and Policy at Amnesty International.

The treaty seeks to regulate the international trade in conventional arms, revenues from which reports estimate will exceed $100 billion in the next four years.

Though the international treaty does nothing to regulate the domestic use of weapons in any country, it does require all countries to establish national regulations to control the transfer of conventional arms, parts and components and to regulate arms brokers. These include battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and missile launchers, and small arms and light weapons.

“The Arms Trade Treaty provides a powerful alternative to the body-bag approach currently used to respond to humanitarian crises.”
–Raymond Offenheiser, Oxfam

Reportedly, a phrase stating that this list was "at a minimum" was dropped at the insistence of the United States. According to the Associated Press, supporters complain that this omission will limit the treaty's scope.

The US also opposed restrictions placed on ammunition sales, which have been excluded from most of the provisions.

The treaty puts the onus on states to determine "whether a weapon could be used for genocide, war crimes or by so-called 'terrorists' or organized crime before it is sold," Al Jazeera reports.


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"We owe it to those millions – often the most vulnerable in society – whose lives have been overshadowed by the irresponsible and illicit international trade in arms," Australian Ambassador Peter Woolcott, who chaired the negotiations, told the assembly before the vote.

Support was particularly strong among many African countries, reports the New York Times, "with most governments asserting that over the long run the treaty would curb the arms sales that have fueled so many conflicts."

“The Arms Trade Treaty provides a powerful alternative to the body-bag approach currently used to respond to humanitarian crises,” said Oxfam America president, Raymond Offenheiser. “Today nations enact arms embargoes in response to humanitarian crises only after a mass loss of life. The treaty prohibits the weapon sales in the first place.”

The treaty was approved by a vote of 154 to three, with 23 abstentions.

The three who voted against, Iran, North Korea and Syria, announced their refusal during a negotiating conference last Thursday, citing loopholes including the failure to include an embargo on delivering weapons "to terrorist armed groups and to non-state actors."

In the US, the treaty now passes to the Senate who will vote on ratification, where it is expected to meet resistence from those pressured by the powerful National Rifle Association and other gun industry lobbyists.

You can view the voting record for each country in the UN General Assembly here.


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