NEW YORK (MainStreet)—The United States was among the vast majority of member nations to ratify the first international disarmament treaty, called the Arms Trade Treaty, at the United Nations General Assembly in early April, in a bid to control the illicit trade of conventional arms. The vote was a considerable symbolic step for the U.S., the largest global exporter of arms, which previously was one of the players that blocked the passage of the treaty when it was negotiated in July 2012.
The treaty now faces the real risk of lying dormant in Washington D.C., though, as it faces the tough challenge of passing through the U.S. Senate with at least 67 votes. Fifty-two senators signed a measure in March to prevent the U.S. from entering into the ATT, which only North Korea, Syria and Iran voted against.
In the midst of an intensifying heated political and social debate on gun control in the U.S.--one that escalated this week--the National Rifle Association has been leading the opposition on the ATT, as it is known, saying that the treaty threatens the rights and privacy of American gun owners. American gun sales peaked in 2012, as FBI background checks for gun sales in 2012 totaled 19.6 million, an annual record, up 19% from the checks done in 2011.
Yet the ATT specifically grants individual governments the sovereign right to regulate and control conventional arms within their own borders.
“Nothing in this treaty could ever infringe on the rights of American citizens under our domestic law or the Constitution, including the Second Amendment,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement following the treaty's April 4 approval.
The conflation of the two issues – domestic U.S. gun ownership and American foreign arms exports – is exasperating for some international arms control experts.
“The messages the NRA has often put out are so far away from the truth that it is frustrating," said Colby Goodman, an arms trafficking expert and consultant. "The ATT has never been about regulating domestic trade, it has never been about civilian ownership and possession of firearms.Yet it is still what people believe.”
“Although the NRA would like to conflate the ATT with the domestic gun issue these two issues are entirely separate, and there is really no overlap whatsoever, except we are all living in the US and we are talking about tools of violence,” said Rachel Stohl, a senior associate at the Washington, D.C.,-based Stimson Center, a peace and security non-profit and research group, and a consultant to the UN ATT process. “It's a misrepresentation of what it is actually about.”
One thing the treaty may actually do, if signed and adopted in the United States, is encourage the U.S. to improve its record of international firearms sales.
“The U.S. already does this, but the way it is structured, there are not a lot of details about the quantities of ammunition and firearms,” Goodman said.
It would work to bring other countries up to the level of the United States, which has some of the strongest monitoring and control policies in place when it comes to the sale and transfer of arms. It would also give civil society a tool to use when holding governments to account for not tracking or exposing arms deals.
“There just weren't rules to the game, and what we have seen over the last several decades in particular is undemocratic regimes getting weapons to terrorize civilian populations,” Stohl said.
All arms transfer agreements worldwide in 2011 totaled $85.3 billion, up from the 2010 total of $44.5 billion. In 2011, the U.S. ranked first with $66.3 billion, or 77.7 percent, in these agreements, according to a report for Congress, a significant increase from its $21.4 billion in deals for 2010. In 2011, Russia followed the U.S. in deals with a $4.8 billion value.
Calculating the total arms the U.S. exports to a fine point is tricky, says Matt Schroeder, the director of the Arms Sales Monitoring Project at the Federation of American Scientists.
“There are a lot of ambiguities," he said. "One of the largest sources of revenues comes from sales by US. companies and U.S. companies overseas."
The big numbers can also be somewhat misleading.
“From a financial standpoint, platforms, like air crafts and tanks, are very expensive and sales are being made to stable allies in Europe,” Schroeder said. “The value of problematic sales, of arms that could reach armed groups, is comparatively small, but the damage they do is much greater, in an objective sense than a C130 shipped to Norway.”
The ATT now awaits President Barack Obama's signature on June 3. It will then move on to the Senate, where it falls behind a line of other treaties also awaiting ratification.
“It's symbolic to have the largest exporter on board," stohl said. "It doesn't require any new legislation or administrative obligations for the U.S. government, and there are no real obstacles stopping this from moving forward. It's political."
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