In the shadow of the re-energized gun-control debate in the United States, negotiators at the United Nations will reconvene this week to try to reach a final agreement on a treaty to regulate the global trade in conventional weapons, a lucrative business that rights groups call the main source of illicit arms fueling deadly conflicts around the world.
“I am confident that member states will overcome their differences and muster the political will needed to agree on this landmark treaty,” the U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, said Thursday in a statement welcoming the resumed negotiations, which were suspended in disappointment about eight months ago. They start again Monday and are scheduled to conclude March 28.
Proponents regard the treaty effort as the most important U.N. initiative on regulating conventional weapons. It would cover at least eight categories, including not only small arms but also tanks, warships, combat aircraft, missiles and missile launchers. The treaty would require member states to monitor cross-border trade of those weapons and establish what amounts to a universally accepted system of background checks on the recipients.
A prime purpose, according to the treaty’s latest draft, is “the need to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit trade of conventional arms and to prevent their diversion to the illicit market and for unauthorized end use.”
Proponents contend that roughly 2,000 people a day die from armed violence abetted by illicitly traded weapons.
“Gunrunners continue to operate with impunity on the shady fringes of this deadly trade,” Oxfam, a leading supporter, said in a statement last Tuesday. Lax or nonexistent reporting obligations, Oxfam said, “make it almost impossible to tell in whose hands a gun, shell, bullet or even fighter plane will ultimately end up, or how it got there.”
Representatives of the 193 U.N. member states had been on the verge of completing a final draft of the treaty last July after four weeks of talks in New York, having aimed for approval by consensus. But they failed to meet a self-imposed deadline as major weapons exporting countries, led by the U.S., raised objections.
Some supporters of the treaty, including groups like Amnesty International and Oxfam, called the failure a consequence of political cowardice by the Obama administration, accusing it of worrying more about giving Republican gun-rights advocates an issue ahead of the November presidential election. Administration officials denied the charge, saying they wanted a treaty but needed more time to negotiate it.
Still, there was enormous pressure on the administration to back away from the treaty, led by groups like the National Rifle Association, which contended that some provisions infringed on the Second Amendment freedoms of U.S. gun owners, a claim disputed by treaty supporters. The NRA and other gun-rights advocates were further emboldened by lawmakers in Congress who warned Obama that such a treaty would never be ratified.
Whether the treaty’s prospects have improved remains to be seen, not only in the U.S., which accounts for about 30 percent of the $60 billion to $70 billion annual trade in conventional arms, but also among other major weapons exporters like Russia and China. They have expressed ambivalence about language in the treaty that could be interpreted as banning weapons trade with human rights violators, arguing that such a distinction is subjective.
While the U.S. political atmosphere may have shifted in the aftermath of Obama’s re-election and the anti-gun outrage generated by the Dec. 14 school massacre in Newtown, Conn., the NRA and other gun-rights groups say the treaty still has what they called fatal flaws.
After the U.N. General Assembly voted on Dec. 24 to restart the negotiations in March, which the U.S. supported, the president of the NRA, David Keene, said the Newtown killings had done nothing to change the group’s position on the treaty. “We’re as opposed to it today as we were when it first appeared,” he said in an interview with Reuters.
Although the treaty would regulate only international arms trade, the NRA and other gun-rights groups object to the inclusion of small arms and light weapons. The NRA also contends that the requirements of record-keeping open the door to a national registry of guns in the U.S., which the group opposes.
Treaty supporters have accused the NRA of a misinformation campaign and say that nothing in the treaty infringes on the Second Amendment.
Last month, the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights issued a report asserting that the treaty, as currently drafted, did not exceed the scope of U.S. trade statutes that already regulate the import and export of weapons. “U.S. ratification of the treaty would not infringe upon rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment,” the report said.
On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed support for the resumed negotiations, but made clear that U.S. backing of a final draft was not guaranteed.
“The United States could only be party to an arms trade treaty that addresses international transfers of conventional arms solely and does not impose any new requirements on the U.S. domestic trade in firearms or on U.S. exporters,” he said in a statement. “We will not support any treaty that would be inconsistent with U.S. law and the rights of American citizens under our Constitution, including the Second Amendment.”