As world welcomes historic Arms Trade Treaty, U.S. Senators vow to block it

Amnesty International demonstrators rally for the Arms Trade Treaty at the White House on March 22, 2013. (AFP/Jim Watson)

Amnesty International demonstrators rally for the Arms Trade Treaty at the White House on March 22, 2013. (AFP/Jim Watson)

Immediately following the historic adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty by the UN General Assembly last week – with only Iran, Syria and North Korea voting against it, and 23 abstentions – a group of U.S. senators vowed to defeat the treaty’s ratification, calling it a “non-starter” in the Senate.

The first-of-its-kind treaty seeks to prevent small arms and light weapons, tanks, missiles, helicopters and other weapons from being sold to human rights abusers or terrorist groups, requiring countries to establish internal mechanisms to ensure that their arms exports aren’t likely to be used to harm civilians or violate human rights laws.

Prohibiting arms transfers that would be used to commit genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, the treaty’s adoption on Tuesday was warmly welcomed by much of the world, with UN Secretary General calling it “a historic diplomatic achievement – the culmination of long-held dreams and many years of effort.”

The UN vote on the Arms Trade Treaty: Green indicates yes votes, red indicates no votes, and yellow indicates abstentions. Source:

The UN vote on the Arms Trade Treaty: Green indicates yes votes, red indicates no votes, and yellow indicates abstentions. Source:

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) welcomed it in particular as a crucial step toward protecting children.

“The Arms Trade Treaty asks States to explicitly consider the risk that an arms transfer could facilitate serious acts of violence against women and children before allowing it to proceed,” Susan Bissell, UNICEF’s Chief of Child Protection, said in a press release. “This is critical given that weapons are now one of the leading causes of death of children and adolescents in many countries, including many that are not experiencing war,” she added.

The UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, applauded the inclusion in the treaty of a prohibition on the transfer of arms that would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity and certain war crimes and called on States to act quickly to apply this prohibition.

“Genocide depends in part on the availability of arms and ammunition,” he said. “Despite some shortcomings of this treaty, its adoption represents an important step forward in the struggle to prevent genocide and provides a new legal tool to protect those at risk of their lives, and groups threatened with destruction.”

The European Union hailed the treaty as “a balanced and robust text, the result of comprehensive and inclusive negotiations, where all UN Member States’ views have been expressed and reflected.”

In a statement, EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said,

The international community can claim full ownership of this treaty, which will make trade in conventional arms more responsible and transparent, thus reducing human suffering, and tangibly contributing to international peace, security and stability.

The EU has always argued that in order to make a real difference to people affected by the irresponsible and illicit use of conventional arms, the international community needed a treaty that is strong and robust. The Treaty adopted by the General Assembly today, meets these requirements. The ATT that UN Member States have negotiated and adopted is one that contains strong parameters on international humanitarian and human rights law and will apply to a wide range of arms, including ammunition. These were clear priorities for the EU and for a significant number of other UN Member States, which are reflected in the ATT adopted today.

Wolfgang Grossruck, the president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, which counts the U.S. as a member, called the treaty “an important step in bringing transparency and protection of human rights to a highly profitable but sometimes unscrupulous industry that too often allows weapons to fall into the wrong hands.”

He added, “Now we must work to ensure that arms-exporting countries, including OSCE participating States, live up to the commitments to which they have just agreed.”

Japan also welcomed the treaty, saying it “will contribute to international and regional peace and security and prevent illicit trafficking of conventional arms as it will provide a common international standard to regulate the transfer of conventional arms.”

Turkey said that the overwhelming vote in favor of the treaty “demonstrates the strong will of the great majority of member states for a universal and legally binding mechanism that sets common standards at the highest possible level to regulate the exports, imports and transfers of conventional arms.”

“The Treaty represents the best possible compromise under current conditions and embodies articles that would enable further improvements in the future,” said the Turkish foreign ministry.

Civil society was overjoyed by the UN vote. In a message to supporters, the Control Arms network wrote,

Last July, after negotiations faltered, we wrote an email telling you that an Arms Trade Treaty was coming. It didn’t happen then, but it’s with great joy that we can now say that we’ve finally achieved something. In fact, we’ve changed the world.

After the process was blocked by Syria, Iran, and North Korea last Thursday, the Arms Trade Treaty was moved to the United Nations General Assembly. Today, an overwhelming majority of States voted in favor of adopting this historic Treaty. This landmark vote sends a clear signal to gunrunners and human rights abusers that their time is up.

Amnesty International said the vote represented the triumph of “voices of reason.”

Today’s victory shows that ordinary people who care about protecting human rights can fight back to stop the gun lobby dead in its tracks, helping to save countless lives. The voices of reason triumphed over skeptics, treaty opponents and dealers in death to establish a revolutionary treaty that constitutes a major step toward keeping assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons out of the hands of despots and warlords who use them to kill and maim civilians, recruit child soldiers and commit other serious abuses. Iran, Syria and North Korea blocked consensus at the U.N., while the NRA cynically – and ultimately unsuccessfully – tried to erode the U.S. government’s support through a campaign of lies about the treaty. But in the end, the global call for responsibility in the arms trade won out.

Amnesty International played a leading role in initiating the campaign for this treaty nearly 20 years ago and has fought tirelessly to stop weapons from being sent to countries where we know they are used to commit human rights atrocities. This has been a life-saving struggle that never could have been achieved without the support of millions of human rights activists who stepped forward to demand change. We call on President Obama to be first in line on June 3 when the treaty opens for signature.

The U.S. gun lobby however objects to the treaty, calling it a potential infringement on the Second Amendment to the Constitution, despite the fact that language was even worked into the treaty’s preamble to reaffirm “the sovereign right of any State to regulate and control conventional arms exclusively within its territory, pursuant to its own legal or constitutional system.”

The United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty also makes clear that “the ATT will not interfere with the domestic arms trade and the way a country regulates civilian possession, [or] ban, or prohibit the export of, any type of weapons.”

But the National Rifle Association’s many allies in the Senate – which must ratify the treaty before it becomes legally binding on the U.S. government – have thrown down the gauntlet, making it clear the treaty stands a snowball’s chance in hell of being ratified.

A day after the UN approved the treaty, Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah became the 35th senator to endorse a resolution of opposition, calling the treaty “deeply flawed.” The Constitution requires two-thirds of the Senate — 67 votes — to ratify a treaty.

“I have great concerns that this treaty can be used to violate the second amendment rights of American citizens, and do not believe we should sign any treaty that infringes on the sovereignty of our country,” Lee said in a statement.

“It’s time the Obama administration recognizes it is already a non-starter, and Americans will not stand for internationalists limiting and infringing upon their Constitutional rights,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.).

For its part, the Obama administration is being rather tight-lipped about how hard it might be pushing for ratification, or even whether Obama would put his signature on the treaty.

“As is the case with all treaties of this nature, we will follow the normal procedures to conduct a through review of the treaty text to determine whether to sign the treaty,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. “What that timeline is, I cannot predict to you now — we are just beginning the review process, so I wouldn’t want to speculate when it would end.”

Civil society, however, is not wasting any time in pressing for full U.S. adherence to this landmark treaty. Noting that the United States accounts for the bulk of the world’s arms exports – many of which end up in the hands of brutal dictators like Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov and the Bahraini monarchy, or help facilitate war crimes by Israel – arms control advocates are calling for swift ratification of the treaty, especially by the UN Security Council’s permanent five members.

arms treaty infographic

As Amnesty International USA put it,

While this is a big win, there is still a lot of work to do. The treaty is adopted but “asleep” – it needs to be signed and ratified by 50 countries before it will enter into force. Amnesty International USA will demand that the Obama Administration and the U.S. Congress take this important stand for human rights by signing and then ratifying this landmark treaty.

Amnesty and other human rights groups may have their work cut out for them, with the NRA and other pro-gun organizations spending a huge amount of money to influence Washington policymaking and lining up all their resources in opposition to this treaty that gun manufacturers fear might cut into their profit margins.

The NRA — which is bankrolled by weapons manufacturers — is opposed to virtually every form of gun control, including restrictions on owning assault weapons, retention of databases of gun purchases, and registration of firearms, and is working overtime to defeat the ATT. As the Center for Responsive Politics notes, it spends tens of millions of dollars on campaign contributions and off-the-books spending on issue ads. It is also notorious for its revolving door corruption and influence peddling, with 14 out of 29 NRA lobbyists having previously held government jobs.

It should also be remembered that the U.S. government derailed the Arms Trade Treaty last July, in what Amnesty International called at the time “a staggering abdication of leadership by the world’s largest exporter of conventional weapons to pull the plug on the talks just as they were nearing an historic breakthrough.”

In fact it’s possible that the U.S. delegation to the United Nations only voted for the treaty on Tuesday knowing that it will never be ratified by the Senate, and therefore will not be legally binding on the United States. The chief U.S. negotiator, Thomas M. Countryman, told the press that the U.S. would support the treaty because it would promote global security without affecting the constitutional right to bear arms. He also made clear that there was a PR angle to the U.S. vote, saying that he “would rather be on opposite side of Syria, Iran, DPRK than join them in criticism of this treaty.”

The United States had earlier insisted on consensus for the Arms Trade Treaty but then abandoned that insistence when it became clear that only three U.S.-designated rogue states would oppose it.

Countryman told media there was no “inconsistency” in the US position on consensus, emphasizing that it was always part of the plan. “We always knew that this could go to the General Assembly,” he claimed.

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