The Arms Trade Treaty: What’s Next

The General Assembly is set to vote on the final draft text of the Arms Trade Treaty today. Late last week, negotiators from UN member states put together the final touches on the long debated treaty to regulate the international, legal transfer of arms and armaments to prevent arms that are sold internationally from being used in the commission of crimes against humanity.

Treaties like this typically operate on the principal of consensus. Countries negotiate the text in such a way that every country on the planet can sign it.  But Iran, North Korea and Syria refused to approve the draft text last week, therefore blocking universal consensus. Instead of letting these spoilers kill the whole treaty, the action is moving to the General Assembly for a vote on the final text.  The General Assembly will likely vote 190-3 in favor  of the Arms Trade Treaty. (Actual vote was 154-3, with  23 absentians) This vote does not have any formal, legal weight but it is an important demonstration of the near universal acceptance of the treaty.

After the General Assembly vote, the treaty must be signed and ratified by member states. The Arms Trade Treaty will officially enter into force 90 days after the 50th country ratifies it.

Each country’s procedure for signing and ratifying treaties differs slightly. Here in the United States the President signs treaties, but the Senate ratifies them.  Last week, the lead US negotiator on the Arms Trade Treaty said it would be at least a few months before President Obama signs the treaty. (Sometimes when treaties are controversial, presidents wait until the very last minute to present their signature. President Clinton signed the International Criminal Court treaty just a couple of weeks before he left office.)

I would imagine that President Obama will sign the treaty sometime sooner than that, but it will probably be several months from now. Then, comes the long, drawn out battle for senate ratification, which requires the approval of two thirds of Senators. It is fair to say that it will be a very, very long time until the US Senate ratifies this treaty. To be sure, this treaty has absolutely nothing to do with domestic arms sales or domestic gun laws, but the NRA has done a good job of demagoguing the treaty and stirring up opposition among second amendment advocates. Unless domestic gun politics in the USA fundamentally changes, this treaty has virtually no chance of being ratified.

The USA can still live by its strictures simply by executive branch action. And American officials are quick to point out that this treaty helps lift other countries standards against exporting arms to war criminals closer to the high standards that the USA has for itself.

Still, the Arms Trade Treaty will likely languish in the Senate for a very long time. Just for comparisons sake, it has been 33 years since Jimmy Carter signed the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women; 18 Years since Bill Clinton signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child; 17 years since he signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. None of those treaties have been ratified. It took the USA 40 years to ratify the genocide convention in 1988.

This is all to say, don’t expect the world’s largest exporter of arms to formally join this treaty anytime soon.