Home inContext UN Passes Conventional Arms Treaty

UN Passes Conventional Arms Treaty

Michael Johnson

The UN General Assembly approved a treaty on Tuesday that is designed to regulate and reduce the global arms trade. One hundred fifty-four member states voted in favor of the convention with North Korea, Iran and Syria voting against it. China and Russia, two of the world’s five largest arms exporters, joined 21 countries abstaining from the measure. The referendum in the General Assembly comes after the UN’s 193 member states failed to find consensus during the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) Conference earlier this month.

Only countries that ratify the ATT will be bound by the agreement, creating a significant challenge to the treaty’s effectiveness. Countries such as Russia, which abstained, will still be able to sell weapons to Syria. Enforcement of the text will be further compromised by the fact that formal body has been established to prosecute offenses; those agreeing to the new rules must enforce them on their own. The agreement also continues to permit the selling of weapons to non-state actors, which includes groups designated by some countries as terrorist organizations.

Delegates to the United Nations General Assembly applaud the passage of the first UN treaty regulating the international arms trade. (Photo: AFP)

Even though the American delegation at the UN approved the measure, the U.S. Senate requires a two thirds majority to ratify the bill into law. According to an unnamed government official, the Obama administration probably will not send the treaty to the Senate floor as in all likelihood it would not be approved. “It’s time the Obama administration recognizes it is already a non-starter,” said Oklahoma Republican Senator Jim Inhofe in a statement. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman, however, said the U.S. already holds some of highest standards for regulating arms and the treaty would only bring the world closer U.S. norms.

Among the countries abstaining are Bolivia, Cuba, and Nicaragua, which fear political retaliation from the unclear definition of a “human rights violation.” However, many African countries strongly supported the new treaty with governments hoping it could help curb arms sales involved in local conflicts across the continent.

Nevertheless, a number of world leaders and human rights groups hailed the new agreement. “It is a historic diplomatic achievement…” announced Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “This is a victory for the world’s people.” Secretary of State John Kerry also supported the new agreement, calling the ATT “strong effective and implementable.”

The new agreement covers a wide range of conventional weapons including tanks, combat aircraft, warships, missile launchers and even small arms. The treaty is not designed to affect domestic arm sales but countries are required to regulate arms transfers and weapons brokers. According to AP, countries that ratify the treaty are prohibited from “exporting conventional weapons if they violate arms embargoes, or if they promote acts of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes, or if they could be used in attacks against civilians.”

Much remains to be done to improve agreements keeping arms out of the hands of the most organized criminal groups, terrorists and unsavory governments. The new framework must have a stronger enforcement mechanism and include more countries in order to truly ensure that the $70 billion annual trade in arms throughout the world does not help rogue nations or groups.