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

by Howard LaFranchi & Linda Feldmann,  |  published on April 12, 2013

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.

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