- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 9, 2009

President Obama’s call for the Senate to ratify a hemispheric small-firearms treaty dominated his last visit to Mexico, but in the four months since, both the treaty pledge and the drug violence that prompted it have dropped off the radar - a victim of Congress’ full schedule and gun politics.

That means on Sunday Mr. Obama will go with an empty hand to Mexico, which blames the U.S. for many of the weapons used by drug cartels that have violently thwarted a crackdown by Mexican authorities.

And even though Mr. Obama and his administration have accepted that blame, prospects are dim for passage of the treaty, which calls on countries to license gun manufacturers and try to control illicit trafficking in firearms, ammunition and explosives.

The chief U.S. negotiator for the 1997 treaty, known by its Spanish acronym of CIFTA, says it was written specifically to avoid forcing the U.S. to change its laws, and says it does not give any other country a say over what is legal or illegal in the U.S. - and that gun-rights groups were even involved in writing parts of the treaty.

But the National Rifle Association now claims CIFTA could hurt hunters and says U.S. Second Amendment interests should not be controlled by an international treaty. Key senators such as Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat whose gun-rights credentials may be crucial to his winning re-election next year, was cool to Mr. Obama’s call for ratification in April, and a spokesman said nothing has changed since.

“We must work with Mexico to curtail the violence and drug trafficking on America’s southern border, and must protect Americans’ Second Amendment rights,” Mr. Reid said in April. “I look forward to working with the president to ensure we do both in a responsible way.”

Treaties require a two-thirds vote by the Senate to be ratified - probably an impossible goal, given opposition from both sides of the aisle.

Chris W. Cox, the National Rifle Association’s chief lobbyist, would not give a tally, but said that “there are a number of both Republicans and Democrats who share our concerns about the potential for abuse should this treaty be ratified.”

On his two-day trip, Mr. Obama is expected to meet first with Mexican President Felipe Calderon - both men will then meet with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The White House says that talking, even without having any tangible “deliverables” to show for it, is important.

“We will see more of these dialogues in the future and at a relatively frequent pace,” National Security Adviser James L. Jones, a retired Marine general, told reporters in previewing the trip. “From that, I think good things will come.”

Both Mexican and Canadian officials bring to the meeting concerns that the U.S. is moving away from free trade.

Canada is worried about buy-American provisions in the economic stimulus spending bill, and Mexico has imposed retaliatory measures in response to Congress’ halting a program to allow Mexican trucks on U.S. highways. The program is part of U.S. trade obligations.

For its part, the U.S. is eager to discuss coordination on swine flu precautions and combating global warming.

Still, the issue of drug-cartel violence along the U.S.-Mexico border, which dominated the springtime meeting in Mexico City between Mr. Obama and Mr. Calderon, will be a hot topic yet again.

Mr. Obama hopes to continue the flow of U.S. aid to combat drug trafficking, known as the Merida Initiative, which began under President George W. Bush, but that hit a snag last week.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, said 15 percent of the drug-fighting aid is contingent on the U.S. secretary of state reporting to Congress that Mexico is meeting human rights requirements.

“Those requirements have not been met, so it is premature to send the report to Congress,” Mr. Leahy said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama might also have to explain to Mr. Calderon why so little progress has been made on CIFTA, whose name in English is the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and Other Related Materials.

Mr. Obama vowed in April to push the long-languishing CIFTA and shoulder some responsibility, calling small-arms trafficking “a source of so many of the weapons used in this drug war.”

But since then, other than including CIFTA as one of 17 priority treaties on which the administration wants to see action in this Congress, the administration has not appeared to have pressed the issue on a reluctant Senate.

Jonathan Winer, who was the chief negotiator for the U.S. on CIFTA, said it does not change U.S. laws governing firearms ownership.

“It would provide further tools for the government to track and arrest criminals involved in smuggling and other serious crimes involving firearms, like police killings and armed robbery. But it does not change domestic U.S. law,” said Mr. Winer, who was deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement. “It does not criminalize anything that is currently legal in the U.S.”

He said CIFTA would make other countries update their international gun-trafficking laws by bringing them in line with current U.S. standards.

“We consulted with the National Rifle Association and its representatives throughout the negotiation of CIFTA. It is a fact that there is language in CIFTA that was drafted by people working for the NRA,” he said.

For its part, the NRA says firearms manufactured in the U.S. are already heavily regulated, and said the treaty could have “serious impacts on recreation and hunting activities” and could affect those who hand-load ammunition at home.

“The United States is already doing our part, and we shouldn’t have our freedoms dumbed down to [the level of] other countries that haven’t done theirs,” Mr. Cox said.

Mr. Obama does have allies in the two top members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which has jurisdiction over the matter: Chairman John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, and Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the committee’s ranking Republican.

After Mr. Obama called for ratification, Mr. Kerry said he would “work for its approval” in his committee.

A spokesman for Mr. Kerry said last week the senator remains committed, but also pointed to a packed schedule and other major treaties and said it’s unclear when CIFTA could happen.

Mexico signed the treaty in 1997 and ratified it the next year. The U.S. also signed the treaty in 1997 and President Clinton submitted it to the Senate in 1998, but it has languished since.

Among the 33 signatories, all but four - Canada, Jamaica and the Caribbean island nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, as well as the U.S. - have ratified it.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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