U.S. wavers on arms trade treaty at the U.N.

MP Alistair Burt of the United Kingdom (center) signs the first international treaty regulating global arms trade at the United Nations on June 3, 2013 in New York City. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

At the U.N. on Monday, over 60 nations signed the first international treaty to regulate the global arms trade, after seven years of negotiations, and sponsors were taking a victory lap, explaining the impact of a treaty that they hope will stem the flow of weapons that fuel extremists in conflicts around the world.

Angela Kane, the U.N.'s High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, said that it would be a few years before the ratifications would be completed by countries and the treaty would take effect - but that the signatures on the first day of signing was a good beginning.

The U.S. intends to sign the treaty "as soon as the process of conforming the official translations is completed satisfactorily," according to the State Department. But, ratification in the U.S. Senate is another matter.

"The treaty is an important contribution to efforts to stem the illicit trade in conventional weapons, which fuels conflict, empowers violent extremists, and contributes to violations of human rights," Secretary of State John Kerry said.

U.S. ratification continues to face stiff opposition, where it must garner a two-thirds vote in the Senate, where a March vote to oppose the treaty won Senate support.

Republican Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas introduced the concurrent resolution, expressing the Senate's opposition to the treaty, saying that it failed to expressly recognize the individual right to bear arms.

"The United States should ratify treaties only when they are in our national interest, clear in their goals and language, respect our sovereignty, and do not create any openings to infringe upon our constitutional freedoms," Moran said. "The Arms Trade Treaty fails to meet any of these tests, which is why I urge the president not to sign it, and why a bipartisan coalition of 36 U.S. Senators will remain united in opposition to ratification."

Addressing the concerns that senators have on the treaty, Kerry said on Monday, "The ATT will not undermine the legitimate international trade in conventional weapons, interfere with national sovereignty, or infringe on the rights of American citizens, including our Second Amendment rights."

One of the key provisions of the treaty in the regulation of the $60 billion global arms trade is that enforcement is in the hands of each nation that signs the treaty. The pact had initially been blocked by Iran, North Korea and Syria when the vote went to the 193 member General Assembly in a vote by consensus two months ago. The treaty then went to a vote and was approved by a vote of 153-3 with 23 abstentions.

Christine Beerli, vice president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, at the opening for signature of the Arms Trade Treaty at the U.N., said: "The preamble recognizes the consequences, in humanitarian terms, of the illicit and unregulated trade in conventional arms."

The treaty has several provisions that require states to not trade in arms if they know that the arms will be used for violence by extremist groups, or sold on the black market. That might apply to Russian aid to Syria and may be one of the reasons that Russia is unlikely to reverse its position.

"One of the most significant aspects of the treaty," Beerli said, is its absolute prohibition of arms transfers when a state knows that arms in question would be used to commit genocide, crimes against humanity, or certain war crimes.

She added: "Another such obligation is the requirement that each state assess the risk of misuse - that is, determine whether the arms being exported could be used to commit a serious violation of international humanitarian law or of international human rights law. When a government finds that there is an overriding risk of such violations, it must not export the arms."

The treaty also has reporting procedures to follow up on how states behave.

The pact will require the parties to implement strict controls on the international transfer of conventional arms to prevent their diversion and misuse and to create greater cooperation against black market arms sales.

Both Russia and China abstained on the treaty, but China may be looking more favorably on signing it, according to Brian Wood, Amnesty International's head of arms control and human rights. When the U.S. signs it, he said, it may clear the way for the new government in China to follow suit. Russia, he said, is more skeptical. He was disappointed that India was not on board, since it is the largest importer of arms, along with Saudi Arabia.

"It is not an ideal treaty," Wood said, but it is "a good start."

Ambassador Peter Woolcott, president of the Final United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty, said that if the U.S. signs the treaty and then cannot get it ratified, "the U.S. tends to abide by the provisions of the Treaties it signs."

France's foreign minister Laurent Fabius said that with France's signing, "France looks forward to the swift entry into force of the Arms Trade Treaty, which is a major step forward for human rights, humanitarian law and international stability."

Negotiators anticipated that the treaty will go into effect in about two years and put pressure on many of the nations that have not signed to endorse its procedures.

  • Pamela Falk

    Pamela Falk is CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst and an international lawyer, based at the United Nations.

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