‘Final’ Talks on Global Arms Treaty Move Ahead, With U.S. Support

By Patrick Goodenough | November 9, 2012 | 4:49 AM EST

Flags of member nations flying at United Nations headquarters in New York City. (U.N. Photo by Eskinder Debebe)

(CNSNews.com) – Hours after President Obama’s re-election, a United Nations committee approved a resolution to hold a “final” conference in March aimed at delivering a global conventional arms trade treaty. The United States voted in favor.

U.N. officials said the vote’s timing was not related to the U.S. election, but the result of a delay linked to superstorm Sandy.

In the U.S., critics fear the ATT could impact on America’s arms sales decisions abroad, for instance allowing some elements to use the treaty to restrict U.S. weapons sales to countries like Israel and Taiwan.

Second Amendment advocacy groups also are concerned that the treaty could open the door to restrictions on gun ownership at home, despite the insistence of the U.N. that the initiative will have no such effect.

Over the summer, a month-long conference in New York that was intended to produce a U.N. Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) ended without achieving that goal. Now, as a result of Wednesday’s committee vote – which the full General Assembly is expected to endorse soon – the world’s nations will meet for 10 days next March in a bid to hammer out a consensus agreement.

The resolution that passed in a 157-0 vote (with 18 nations abstaining, including major arms exporter Russia), says a draft treaty released last July will be “the basis” for the talks in March, “without prejudice to the right of delegations to put forward additional proposals on that text.”

As reported at the time, a key concern about that draft is a provision saying that, at any time after the ATT eventually enters into force, any country that is party to it can propose amendments.

Any such amendments will be taken up at a conference of signatory states, where, according to the draft text, it “shall be adopted by consensus, or if consensus is not achieved, by two-thirds of the States Parties present and voting.”

If all 193 U.N. member-states sign onto the ATT, a 132-member bloc of developing nations would together constitute that required two-thirds majority, meaning that a treaty could conceivably be amended at any future point, even over the objections of the U.S. and its allies.

It’s also not a certainty that Western allies would side with the U.S. in every case, given existing differences over some ATT questions. For instance the Obama administration pledges not to accept a treaty that covers ammunition or explosives, while some European allies including Britain, France and Germany want it to cover “all types of munitions.”

A coalition of non-governmental organizations promoting an ATT, “Control Arms,” welcomed the vote, but reiterated the view that a strong treaty supported by a majority would be better than a watered-down one agreed on by consensus.

“While a treaty which includes the greatest number of states remains the core objective, a robust text will prove far more effective in the future than a compromise text that states subscribe to, but subsequently ignore,” said Anna McDonald, head of arms control at Oxfam, a member of the coalition.

“The agreement next year must be one that will ultimately make the greatest difference for victims of armed violence,” she added.

‘Not negotiable’

During Wednesday’s debate in New York, Iran’s envoy complained that the treaty’s current draft text does not specifically refer to the right of all people to self-determination and to take actions in support of that right – a clear allusion to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The draft text prohibits the transfer of some categories of arms if doing so would facilitate war crimes. U.N. bodies have more than once accused Israel of war crimes against Palestinians.

Among “red lines” laid down by the Obama administration when it reversed its predecessor’s opposition to an ATT was one stating that “private acquisition, ownership, or possession of firearms … must remain matters of domestic law.”

If the administration does sign up to a final ATT at the end of the negotiations next March, the treaty would require U.S. Senate ratification.

In a letter to President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last July, 51 senators warned they would oppose ratification of any treaty that does not “uphold our country’s constitutional protections of civilian firearms ownership” and “explicitly recognize the legitimacy of lawful activities associated with firearms, including but not limited to the right of self-defense.”

Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kans.), who organized the letter, said it signaled to the administration that “an Arms Trade Treaty that does not protect ownership of civilian firearms will fail in the Senate. Our firearm freedoms are not negotiable.”

Signatories included eight Democrats – Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Jim Webb (Va.), Mark Begich (Ala.), Bob Casey (Penn.), Joe Manchin (W.V.), Ben Nelson (Nebr.), Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Jon Tester (Mont.). (Nelson and Webb are retiring.)

Writing before Wednesday’s vote in New York, Heritage Foundation Senior Research Fellow Ted R. Bromund, who monitored the ATT conference last summer, said the stakes were high, “and no likely outcome will be fully satisfactory from the U.S. point of view.”

“All the more reason, therefore, for Congress to return to the issue and to set out again their concerns about the flaws in the current draft of the ATT and those inherent in any ATT,” he argued. “The worst course of action would be for the U.S. to drift into a position where it feels pressured to sign an ATT that is incompatible with U.S. policies and liberties.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow