The U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday approved a sweeping, first-of-its-kind treaty aimed at regulating the estimated $60 billion international arms trade, brushing aside gun rights groups' concerns that the pact could lead to a national firearms registry in the U.S.
The long-debated U.N. Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) requires countries to regulate and control the export of weaponry such as battle tanks, combat vehicles and aircraft and attack helicopters, as well as parts and ammunition for such weapons.
The treaty also provides that signatories will not violate arms embargoes or international treaties regarding illicit trafficking, or sell weaponry to countries where they could be used for genocide, crimes against humanity or other war crimes.
"This is a good day for the United Nations, and a good day for the peoples of the world," said Australian Ambassador Peter Woolcott, the lead negotiator during the process.
With the Obama administration supporting the final treaty draft, the General Assembly vote was 155-3, with 22 abstentions. Iran, Syria and North Korea voted against the proposal.
U.S. gun rights activists say the treaty is riddled with loopholes and is unworkable in part because it includes "small arms and light weapons" in its list of weaponry subject to international regulations. The activists said they do not trust U.N. assertions that the pact is meant to regulate only cross-border trade and would have no impact on domestic U.S. laws and markets.
One provision requires participating countries to keep records of arms exports and imports, including the quantity, value, model/type, and "end users, as appropriate" for at least 10 years.
Gun record-keeping is a thorny issue in the U.S., where similar questions have stalled a debate over expanding background checks to include all private gun sales.
Second Amendment supporters worry that such records eventually will pave the way for a national firearms registry, currently prohibited by federal law.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott wrote a letter to President Obama on Tuesday saying he would sue to block the treaty if it is ratified. It "appears to lay the groundwork for an international gun registry overseen by the bureaucrats at the UN," the letter said.
The Senate last month also signaled its aversion, voting 53-46 to oppose the treaty in a nonbinding test vote as part of the budget debate. Eight Democrats joined all 45 Republicans in opposing the treaty.
Sen. Jerry Moran, Kansas Republican, said Tuesday that it made no sense to pass a treaty that will bind the U.S., while Iran, Syria and North Korea will ignore it.
"The U.S. Senate is united in strong opposition to a treaty that puts us on level ground with dictatorships who abuse human rights and arm terrorists, but there is real concern that the administration feels pressured to sign a treaty that violates our constitutional rights," Mr. Moran said.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday that the White House was pleased with the outcome, but "as is the case with all treaties of this nature, we will follow normal procedures to conduct a thorough review of the treaty text to determine whether to sign the treaty."
Amnesty International and the Arms Control Association hailed the U.N. vote.
Under the treaty, countries must consider whether weapons would be used to violate international humanitarian or human rights laws and facilitate acts of terrorism or organized crime.
"The treaty's prohibition section, if it were in force today, would prohibit the ongoing supply of weapons and parts and components to the Assad regime in Syria," said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the ACA, a national group that works on arms-control policies.
The American Bar Association released a white paper arguing that the treaty would not affect Second Amendment rights.
The U.N. vote clears the way for countries to add their signatures to the treaty starting June 3. The treaty will take effect 90 days after 50 nations sign it.
Within one year of signing on, each country must submit a report outlining the steps it has taken to comply. But more specifics on the implementation, enforcement and possible punishment for violations of the treaty remain to be seen. Countries have the right to withdraw from the treaty, but are not, as a result, excused from obligations they had while participating.
"This is a very good framework, I think, to build on — it's fair, I think it's balanced, and it's strong. But it's only a framework," Mr. Woolcott said. "And it'll only be as good as its implementation."
More rule-making is to be delegated to a conference of participating countries, to convene within one year after the treaty goes into effect to review its implementation and consider amendments.
Proponents hoped that the treaty could be ratified by acclamation at a final negotiating conference last week, but Syria, Iran and North Korea objected.
Some abstaining countries, including India and Egypt, said the treaty did not go far enough on its language regarding terrorism or human rights.
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