Kerry signs UN arms treaty

Accord aims to stop the spread of guns to human-rights violators, but critics say it violates Americans' rights

Delegates to the United Nations General Assembly April 2, 2013 applaud the passage of the first-ever U.N. treaty regulating the international arms trade.
Timothy A. Clary//AFP/Getty Images

Secretary of State John Kerry signed the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty Wednesday, joining 89 other countries in support of an international solution to the proliferation of guns and other deadly weapons, but flying in the face of many U.S. senators and gun rights groups such as the National Rifle Association.

The treaty would create a framework for regulating the $70-billion-a-year conventional arms business. It would require nations to ensure tanks, warships, small arms (pistols and rifles, for example) and other weapons would not be sold to parties that were intent on committing genocide, terrorism or otherwise infringing on human rights.

The move immediately won praise from the treaty’s advocates, who say it’s a major step in ensuring guns and other arms don’t fall into the hands of terrorists and dictators intent on carrying out crimes against humanity. But the move was harshly criticized by leaders of the gun lobby in the U.S. who say the treaty is a way for lawmakers to circumvent the Second Amendment.

Kerry’s signature will likely be symbolic. U.S. laws on arms exports are more stringent than the treaty itself mandates, and the Senate has to pass a resolution supporting the treaty by a two-thirds majority in order for the U.S. to ratify it.

But its long odds haven’t stopped both sides from coming out with strong words.

Frank Januzzi, deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA, called the move "a very significant win for 20 years of human rights activism" by his organization and other groups in favor of gun control.

On the other side, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., promised the treaty would “collect dust” along with other U.N. treaties rejected by the Senate which, in Inhofe’s view, would “threaten our country’s sovereignty.”

The U.S. is the largest exporter of arms in the world. A U.S. signature on the treaty could help Western countries press to curtail Russian arms sales to Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad's government has been accused of widespread abuses in more than two years of civil war.

The U.N General Assembly voted to adopt the treaty in April, with 154 voting in favor, including the United States. Three nations -- North Korea, Iran and Syria -- voted against the treaty. Twenty-three countries abstained.

While 90 nations have already signed the treaty, 50 would need to also ratify it for it to go into effect. So far only four have done so.

Even though the treaty explicitly states it could not be used to regulate arms sales within any nation, that hasn’t stopped gun-rights advocates from calling for its rejection.

“The Arms Trade Treaty directly threatens the Second Amendment rights and privacy of American gun owners,” Chris W. Cox, director of the NRA’s legislative branch, wrote in a statement. “Signing this treaty would be a clear indication that President Obama wants to resurrect his failed attempt to implement back door gun registration. It would also show his clear contempt for American supremacy and sovereignty.”

Gun-control advocates criticized the Obama administration during U.N. negotiations on the treaty, saying the U.S. bent to pressure from the NRA and conservative lawmakers by pushing to water down the treaty's scope, including blocking the inclusion of ammunition regulation.

Peter Moskowitz contributed to this report, with wire services

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