UN Arms Treaty: Why Both the U.S. and the "Axis Of Evil" Oppose It


On Tuesday morning, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted the draft text of the first ever international treaty designed to regulate the $70 billion global conventional arms trade. 154 states voted in favor, with 3 voting against, and 23 abstaining. The treaty was put to a vote in the General Assembly after Iran, Syria, and North Korea prevented its adoption by consensus during the Final United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty on Friday last week. The treaty will come into force 90 days after the 50th country has signed and ratified it.

Despite the adoption, the treaty does not become binding until states ratify it. While today’s vote is no doubt a historic moment and an important step forward in regulating the global arms trade, there is still much work to be done to ensure it has a concrete impact.

On Friday last week, Iran, Syria, and North Korea all opposed the treaty on the grounds that it is flawed and discriminatory, and failed to ban sales of weapons to rebel groups. Other nations including Russia and China criticised the treaty but reportedly made it clear that they would not have blocked consensus.

In Tuesday morning's vote, Iran, Syria, and North Korea voted against the treaty as expected. 23 states, including Russia, China, Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia, chose to abstain. Among other things, they cited ambiguities and imbalances in the treaty, in particular that it favors exporting countries, as reasons for abstaining.

The treaty itself is designed to regulate the cross-border transfer of conventional weapons (nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons are covered by other treaties). The treaty also creates "binding requirements for nations to review all cross-border arms contracts to ensure the munitions will not be used in human rights abuses, terrorism or violations of humanitarian law; do not breach U.N. arms embargoes; and are not illegally diverted." It would require "governments to refuse to export weapons to countries that would likely use them to violate human rights and humanitarian law or commit genocide or other war crimes."

The United States voted in favor of the treaty, as the head of its delegation, Tom Countryman, indicated it would on Friday last week. While Iran, Syria, and North Korea – apparently the "new Axis of evil" – have been criticized for blocking adoption of the treaty during consensus negotiations, it is also worth remembering that the U.S. has long been opposed to such a treaty. It was only in 2009, after the election of Barack Obama, that the U.S. reversed its previous policy and decided to support an arms treaty. The U.S. was also responsible for "torpedoing ... [negotiations] last summer and dragging its feet" during negotiations last week.

Furthermore, by demanding that the treaty be negotiated by consensus during the conference, the U.S. essentially gave every country a veto. This meant that the U.S. could block the treaty if it did not like it. It also meant that any other state could block the treaty, which is what happened. The U.S. then reversed its insistence on consensus, perhaps because it did not want to be seen to be blocking passage of the treaty along with Iran, Syria, and North Korea, and supported putting it to a vote in the GA. As Countryman noted at the time: "I'm happy to vote the opposite direction of such states as Iran, North Korea and Syria on this text." 

After states have signed the treaty, it will then go to their national legislatures for ratification. Despite false claims by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its supporters that the treaty will undermine gun ownership rights, the American Bar Association issued a white paper which concluded that the treaty "is consistent with the Second Amendment."

Ratification by the U.S. Congress will no doubt take a long, long time, if indeed it happens at all. A majority of senators have already called on Obama not to sign the treaty. Even if he does sign it, their opposition and the influence of the pro-gun lobby in America mean "the Arms Trade Treaty will likely languish in the Senate for a very long time."

Call me cynical, but given America’s incredibly poor record of ratifying UN treaties and conventions, Tuesday’s outcome may represent the best of both worlds for the Obama administration. It can now claim that it supports regulation of the arms trade – contrasting itself with Iran, Syria, North Korea, and to a lesser extent Russia and China – all the while knowing that the treaty is unlikely to be ratified by Congress anytime soon and thus avoid being bound by it.