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Why the U.S. isn't signing the U.N.'s global arms treaty
America's top allies are meeting in New York on Monday to sign a landmark treaty. The U.S. isn't among them, yet
A cache of weapons in Nigeria: The arms treaty would make it more difficult for illicit arms to cross borders. 
A cache of weapons in Nigeria: The arms treaty would make it more difficult for illicit arms to cross borders.  AP Photo/Ben Curtis
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epresentatives of at least 60 nations are gathering at the United Nations headquarters in New York City on Monday to sign a landmark Arms Trade Treaty. The treaty, passed on April 2 after decades of stop-and-go negotiations, will for the first time regulate some of the multibillion-dollar global arms market. Among those signing will be top-tier arms exporters like Britain, France, and Germany.

Who won't be there? America. Says Flavia Krause-Jackson at Bloomberg News:

The absence of the world's top arms dealer at the ceremony in New York drawing some 60 nations casts a shadow over a decades-long push to stop illegal cross-border shipments of conventional weapons. By contrast, some of the world's most violent nations, from drug-plagued Mexico to the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, will be among the signatories. [Bloomberg]

The U.S. absence doesn't mean the Obama administration won't sign the document. "We are conducting a thorough review of the treaty text to determine whether to sign the treaty," says White House National Security Council spokeswoman Laura Lucas. In fact, treaty supporters expect the Obama team to sign on sometime later this year. But the treaty won't actually take effect until at least 50 nations ratify it.

That's where the U.S. will probably step on the breaks, at least domestically. The treaty doesn't regulate weapons sales inside the U.S., or any other country, but nobody expects the U.S. Senate to ratify it anytime soon. So what does the treaty do? Its aim, says The Associated Press' Edith M. Lederer, is to "make it more difficult for illicit arms to cross borders," especially into war-torn countries like South Sudan and Congo.

The treaty covers battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and missile launchers, and small arms and light weapons. It prohibits states that ratify it from transferring conventional weapons if they violate arms embargoes or if they promote acts of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes. The treaty also prohibits the export of conventional arms if they could be used in attacks on civilians or civilian buildings such as schools and hospitals.

In considering whether to authorize the export of arms, a country must evaluate whether the weapons would be used to violate international human rights laws or employed by terrorists or organized crime. A country must also determine whether the weapons would contribute to or undermine peace and security. In addition, the treaty requires countries to take measures to prevent the diversion of conventional weapons to the illicit market. [AP]

Like many things having to do with gun control, the atmosphere in Congress is "absolutely toxic," Amnesty International's Adotei Akwei tells Bloomberg. "Ratification by the U.S. is a long-term strategy and it can take 10 to 15 years." Why not now? Bloomberg's Krause-Jackson explains:

Even if the treaty wouldn't affect U.S. domestic sales or impinge on the constitutional right to bear arms, it would be a political minefield at home. The accord wouldn't muster enough votes for approval by the U.S. Senate, and the influential National Rifle Association, which says it has more than 4.5 million members, has lobbied against it. [Bloomberg]

That's madness, says Rachel Johnson at Patheos. "The only opposition to this historic treaty came from the dictatorships of Iran, Syria, and North Korea — definitely not the kind of company the U.S. wants to be keeping." (Another 23 countries, including Russia and China, abstained from the vote.) And who supports it? says Johnson. "Humanitarian groups, the Pentagon, Vatican, World Evangelical Alliance, National Council of Churches, and countless generals, admirals, missions groups, and pastors."

On it's merits alone, the Arms Trade Treaty should be a slam dunk for any U.S. Senator to support. Prior to its adoption, states were left to self-regulate, creating a patch work of laws with loopholes in some cases big enough to drive a tank through — literally. Arms smugglers were able to take advantage of these loopholes to flood black and grey markets with illicit weapons that ended up in the hands of terrorists, warlords, and drug smugglers and have been used against our soldiers and aid workers.... When the option is to keep company with pastors, military leaders, and humanitarians or Iran, Syria, and North Korea, the choice should be a no brainer. Hopefully with time these Senators will realize this and do the right thing. [Patheos]

But Senate ratification — which requires a two-thirds majority — seems unlikely anytime soon. In a test vote in March, the Senate voted for a symbolic measure opposing U.S. participation in the treaty, 53 to 46, with eight Democrats joining a unanimous GOP caucus. In the House — which doesn't get a vote on the measure — the atmosphere is predictably more charged: 130 members signed a letter to Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry demanding the U.S. not sign the treaty. Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) explains why he signed the letter:

The right to keep and bear arms is granted by God and protecting from government aggression by the Constitution. It is not subject to the whims of global totalitarians massed in New York City.... I oppose any U.N. treaty touching the right to keep and bear arms. It's beyond time for the United States to withdraw from the U.N.

Yes, "you will see a flood of stories from the 'news' soon assuring you the ATT has little effect on the Second Amendment," says Alan Korwin at the Western Free Press. "That's simply false."

"Small arms" are right there in the treaty language. Signatories are required to create "national control lists" of all arms and ammunition imports and exports, and since this includes parts and even metals used, it's a very broad brush. Fine imported guns could be severely affected (can you say Glock?) Make, model, and end users are covered, the U.N. is supposed to get copies of the lists, and the U.N. is supposed to give copies to every other participating nation, who are encouraged to make the lists public. "Improvements" are supposed to be made by amendment after six years. [Western Free Press]

To curb arms sales to brutal regimes, the treaty does "set up a system for tracking exports of arms to other countries and reporting those statistics to the United Nations annually," says Hayes Brown at ThinkProgress, but "the U.S. government already tracks the sale of weapons overseas, meaning very little will change in practice for American citizens." (You can read the full treaty here.) Since the NRA doesn't hold much sway at the U.N., though, it is trying hard to kill it in the Senate, and "unfortunately, the NRA's messaging already seems to have permeated Washington," Brown says.

Oxfam, which supports the treaty, has this explainer video on the Arms Trade Treaty:

And here's a probably futile video from the American Values Network asking Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) to support the treaty. Similar videos were made for at least six other senators.

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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