United States joins General Assembly in vote on small arms trade

The General Assembly today will endorse a landmark agreement to fight the illegal and irresponsible trade of small arms and conventional weapons.  Now, the General Assembly resolution is not an agreement itself, but it does set out a timetable for negotiations on an agreement on ways to curb arms sales to insurgent groups, volatile regions, or irresponsible governments.  The vote tomorrow is very significant, however, for the fact that for the first time ever the United States has will vote with the majority of states in favor of an arms trade resolution.   This is more than symbolically important because the United States is by far the largest arms dealer in the world.  For any treaty of this kind to be effective, the United States would have to be a party to it. 

As I’m sure readers know, certain politically powerful groups like the National Rifle Association have framed attempts to monitor international arms sales as an insidious UN effort to take Americans’ guns away.  And lest the likes of Bob Barr lose their heads, the resolution includes a paragraph inserted, at the insistence of the United States, stipulating that domestic gun sales would not be affected by the agreement.  (That said, as Peter Yeo wrote last week, attempts to make this a discussion about the Second Amendment are completely disengenous.

Part of the reason that the United States agreed to go along with this agreement is that it will be decided by consensus, meaning agreement will be reached only when the language is acceptable to all parties.  On the one hand, this means that the resulting treaty will probably not be as strong as arms control advocates would like.  On the other hand, a consensus process assures that the treaty will gain wide acceptance. 

One outside NGO that has been particularly focused on this issue is Oxfam, which considers today’s vote a “positive development.” I completely agree.   Here’s Oxfam’s statement. 

“The world has waited a long time for a Treaty to control irresponsible and damaging arms transfers. For too long, governments have let the flow of weapons get out of control causing pain, suffering and countless deaths. Governments have the power to stop arms falling into the hands of criminals and rights abusers on Friday they can vote to make this Treaty become a reality” Said Anna Macdonald of Oxfam International. 

The US government’s support for the Treaty is a huge step forward and we look to them to show commitment to get the strongest possible Treaty. However, the demand by Washington to have a final deal agreed by consensus instead of by a simple majority does present risks to the process. Over the next two years all governments who want a strong robust Treaty must negotiate strongly to produce the highest possible standards.
The likely support of the major arms exporters for the Arms Trade Treaty is a positive development. As we move forward, governments must ensure that we don’t let negotiations become a race to the lowest possible standards – this is a life and death situation for thousands of poor people worldwide.” Macdonald concluded.
Image from Flickr