United Nations Approves Arms Trade Treaty

The United Nations General Assembly voted on Tuesday morning to approve the final text of the world’s first treaty regulating the trade of arms between countries, despite pressure from the National Rifle Association to have the United States kill the measure.

In passing the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) — with a vote of 154 in favor to 3 with 23 abstentions — the General Assembly has finally completed work that has gone on for years, including two rounds of strenuous negotiations, and two incomplete conferences. The latest attempt to pass the document via consensus was blocked at the last minute through the combined efforts of Iran, North Korea, and Syria. Following that setback, more than one hundred countries — including the United States — co-sponsored the ATT to move forward in the General Assembly, which is made up of all 193 members of the U.N., resulting in today’s vote.

The legal arms trade, comprised of both the import and export weapons, constitutes around $70 billion annually. Attack helicopters, tanks, and other larger arms are covered under the treaty, as well as small arms and ammunition for these weapons. Under the terms of the treaty, states are required to determine whether the shipment of arms to a second country would be used to commit atrocities or violate human rights or if they could diverted for such a purpose, and report back to the U.N. Secretariat on their efforts. Counter to the right-wing fear-mongering in the United States, primacy of national legislation is recognized in the treaty, forgoing any possibility of a government “gun grab.”

It’s not clear, however, that President Obama would sign the newly passed treaty right away or even in the next few months. In a conference call with reporters on Thursday, the principal U.S. negotiator of the ATT Thomas Countryman demurred:

COUNTRYMAN: For any treaty the United States carefully studies it. It’s looked at from all angles by many different agencies, and any statements of clarification about how we interpret the treaty or how we will implement it are prepared before the President is asked to give his signature. That takes, even for a treaty simpler than this one, usually a few months. I’m reluctant to give any specific timeframe. I can only say that as with any other treaty, it will get a careful review by every relevant agency of the U.S. Government before it goes to the President for signature.

That pledge of careful consideration hasn’t done anything to lessen NRA opposition. On Friday the NRA’s action wing referred to the ATT as an “undead” treaty and denigrated the American Bar Association’s conclusion that the ATT will not adversely affect gun-ownership in the United States.


The ATT is already facing heavy opposition in the U.S. Congress, including the efforts of Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) to pass a concurrent resolution to keep President Obama from signing the text. But given that Democrats hold the majority in Senate Foreign Relations Committee, however, it is unlikely Moran’s resolution will pass. Unfortunately, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) did manage to slip an item into the FY 2014 Budget that would create a fund to block implementation of the ATT.


Secretary of State John Kerry has released a statement praising the U.N.’s adoption of the ATT, preemptively countering arguments about its possible infringement on the Second Amendment:

By its own terms, this treaty applies only to international trade, and reaffirms the sovereign right of any State to regulate arms within its territory. As the United States has required from the outset of these negotiations, nothing in this treaty could ever infringe on the rights of American citizens under our domestic law or the Constitution, including the Second Amendment.