3 Things You Need to Know About the Arms Trade Treaty

Negotiations are (nearly) underway at UN headquarters in New York over a proposed Arms Trade Treaty. I say “nearly” because the official start of the negotiations were delayed this morning when the Arab League supported a motion to let Palestine participate as a full UN member state.  When that happened, the USA and others walked out.

Countries will likely finesse a way out of this hiccup and un-derail the treaty negotiations. When they do, member states will have to work through a host of issues related to the international transfer of everything from fighter jets to Ak-47s.  Here are three things to know about the Arms Trade Treaty

1) Domestic pressure groups here in the United States have spent years trying to cast this treaty as something it is not. They have insinuated that somehow this is a UN attempt to trample on Americans’ constitutionally protected right to bear arms.  The treaty, though, would do nothing of the sort. Rather, it would only apply to the international transfer of the titles of weapons. There will be no prohibition on domestic weapons sales; there won’t even be prohibitions on bringing your gun on a hunting trip abroad. The treaty emphatically only covers the international sale or transfer of title of arms.

2) The end goal of these talks is to have a text for a legally binding treaty that would prevent the sale or transfer of arms to groups likely to use the weapons to commit human rights abuses. (Think: keeping AK-47s out of the hands of child soldiers.) To that end, the key issue of these negotiations is whether or not to explicitly prohibit (rather than merely discourage) arms transfers to a group deemed to be human rights abusers. In treaty language, this means whether or not the phrase  “you shall not transfer if…” will survive or be replaced with something less absolute (like: “you should take into consideration…,” or, take all appropriate measures to prevent…”

3) For this treaty to make the leap from being a nice piece of paper to having some real world consequences requires that the worlds two largest arms traders, the USA and Russia, abide by its strictures. The negotiations will follow regular UN procedures of consensus. Sentences and phrases will only be included in the final treaty when every country agrees. When there are disagreements, they are put to a vote; but for political reasons, these votes are rare.  (The more widely accepted the treaty, the better).  Russia and the USA will hold the most sway during these disagreements, because members that want a good faith Arms Trade Treaty know that they need the support of Russia and the USA to make a dent on the ground.

Chances are the US Senate will not ratify this treaty anytime soon, but that doesn’t meant that it won’t necessarily be followed in practice.  Most provisions of the Law of the Sea, for example, are already followed by the US government and military.