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UN Approval of Arms Trade Treaty Sets Up Obama, Senate Showdown

April 2nd 2013

Professor Obama at work

The United Nations' overwhelming approval Tuesday of an arms trade treaty opposed by the National Rifle Association sets up a showdown between President Obama and the powerful gun lobby's friends on Capitol Hill. President Obama is expected to sign the treaty within the next few months after the United States joined 153 other countries in supporting the treaty.

The Senate, however, has vowed to block ratification, which requires a two-thirds majority and is needed for the treaty to be legally binding on the United States.

“The United States is pleased that the United Nations General Assembly has approved a strong, effective and implementable Arms Trade Treaty that can strengthen global security while protecting the sovereign right of states to conduct legitimate arms trade,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration was “pleased” that “the text achieves the objectives that we set out for this negotiation.”

He wouldn't commit to the president signing the treaty, however, even though the president is widely expected to do so. “As is the case with all treaties of this nature, we will follow the normal procedures to conduct a through review of the treaty text to determine whether to sign the treaty,” Carney said. “What that timeline is, I cannot predict to you now, we are just beginning the review process, so I wouldn't want to speculate when it would end.”

The NRA argues that the treaty violates the Second Amendment because it regulates small arms, such as rifles and handguns, and calls for the creation of an “end-user registry.” In one of the amendments to the Senate Budget passed last month, lawmakers voted 53-46 to stop “the United States from entering into the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty.”

The NRA is pushing a separate resolution from Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) expressing the Senate's opposition to the treaty. “The Senate has already gone on record in stating that an Arms Trade Treaty has no hope, especially if it does not specifically protect the individual right to bear arms and American sovereignty,” Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), a cosponsor of Moran's resolution, said in a recent statement. “It would be pointless for the President to sign such a treaty and expect the Senate to go along. We won’t ratify it.”

The treaty, which has been under negotiation for seven years, requires countries to create internal mechanisms to ensure that their arms exports aren't likely to be used to harm civilians or violate human-rights laws. The Obama administration says the United States already has some of the world's most stringent arms exports requirements and that the treaty merely requires countries with lax oversight to strengthen their laws in line with U.S. requirements.

“The Treaty adopted today will establish a common international standard for the national regulation of the international trade in conventional arms and require all states to develop and implement the kind of systems that the United States already has in place,” Kerry said.

“It will help reduce the risk that international transfers of conventional arms will be used to carry out the world’s worst crimes, including terrorism, genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes,” he continued. “At the same time, the treaty preserves the principle that the international conventional arms trade is, and will continue to be, a legitimate commercial activity that allows nations to acquire the arms they need for their own security.

Kerry said the treaty “applies only to international trade, and reaffirms the sovereign right of any State to regulate arms within its territory.”  “As the United States has required from the outset of these negotiations, nothing in this treaty could ever infringe on the rights of American citizens under our domestic law or the Constitution, including the Second Amendment,” he added.

Treaty advocates say it only applies to arms exports and would have no impact on domestic gun rights, although it might make it more difficult for Americans to import certain firearms from other countries that join the treaty, which would hold true regardless of whether the United States joins the agreement. And the American Bar Association points out that U.S. arms importers are already required to share final recipient information with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The treaty stalled last summer after the Obama administration withheld its support ahead of the November elections. Since then, the administration has sought additional language protecting hunting and self-defense rights to help placate gun-rights advocates while pushing hard for the treaty to take effect.

The UN panel considering the treaty broke up last week after failing to reach consensus amid objections from North Korea, Syria and Iran. The Obama administration, which had initially insisted on consensus, joined more than 100 countries on Monday in co-sponsoring the treaty and urging its passage in the General Assembly. The treaty passed by a vote of 154-3, with 23 abstentions.

Treaty advocates mocked opposition from the NRA and its allies in Congress, claiming they were joining a rogues’ gallery of countries. “Iran, Syria and North Korea blocked consensus at the UN, while the NRA cynically -- and ultimately unsuccessfully -- tried to erode the U.S. government's support through a campaign of lies about the treaty,” said Frank Jannuzi, deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA. “But in the end, the global call for responsibility in the arms trade won out.” He called on Obama to be the “first in line” when the treaty opens for signatures on June 3.

Julian Pecquet writes for The Hill, from where this article is adapted.

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