On Tuesday, April 2, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to approve a landmark treaty aimed at regulating the multi-billion dollar global arms trade. Adoption of this treaty, which represents the culmination of over two decades of lobbying by arms-control activists and delicate international negotiations, reflects growing international sentiment that the multi-billion dollar weapons trade needs to be held to a moral standard. The treaty prohibits countries that ratify it from exporting conventional weapons if they violate arms embargoes, or if they promote acts of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes, or if it can reasonably be assumed that the weapons could be used in attacks against civilians, schools or hospitals.
The treaty was approved by 154 of the 193 UN member nations, with Iran, North Korea and Syria voting against the treaty. While the United States, by far the world’s largest arms exporter, voted in favor of the treaty, Russia and China, the world’s second and forth largest arms exporters, abstained. Reportedly, the 23 abstaining nations include a large number of countries with dubious human rights records, such as Bahrain, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
The treaty’s significance
The treaty is scheduled to go into effect after 50 nations have ratified it. Diplomats anticipate that obtaining the 50 ratifications will take two or three years, a relatively quick time frame for an international treaty. Even though enforcement will be solely at the discretion of the countries that ratify the treaty, it will create an international forum of nations that will review published reports of arms sales and publicly name violators.
The need for this treaty is underscored by the fact that deals arranged by unscrupulous international arms brokers account for a large proportion of guns employed in civil wars in the Congo, Angola, Sierra Leona and Sudan. As the death toll has been in the millions, African nations have been enthusiastic backers of the treaty.
Proponents state that if enough countries ratify the treaty, it will effectively become the international norm, and its standards will be used immediately as political and moral guidelines in reference to global arms trade. Prompt ratification from the United States and other key powers, including Britain, France and Germany, would provide a powerful boost to the treaty’s effectiveness.
Opposition from the Senate
Ratification of the treaty is currently under debate in the US Senate. Under constitutional law, a two-thirds majority vote (67) is required to ratify a treaty.
The line-up is a cliff-hanger at this point. According to a recent Daily Star article, 35 Senators have endorsed a resolution of opposition, leaving only 65 potential votes in favor unless two or more Senators can be persuaded to change their minds. Senate opposition to the treaty appears to be driven by widespread paranoia among many gun owners concerning the Obama-Biden gun control proposals, together with strident opposition by the NRA.
The NRA strongly supports a Senate resolution sponsored by Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) to block ratification. For years the NRA has consistently opposed any and all international arms control measures. This is in stark contrast to views of its membership, as numerous polls indicate that the majority of NRA members support background checks on all gun sales. To cite a few examples, results of a national survey published in the March 21, 2013 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine indicate that 84 percent of gun owners and 74 percent of NRA members support universal background checks. A CBS/New York Times poll conducted of 1,110 adults between Jan. 11-15, 2013, showed that 85 percent of respondents living in a household containing an NRA member supported universal background checks.
I unequivocally believe that the NRA’s staunch opposition to any and all international arms treaties is totally reprehensible. While in its early days the NRA was a grassroots organization that prided itself on independence from corporate influence, that most definitely is not the case today. According to a Business Insider article titled “Here’s Who The NRA REALLY Represents”, less than half of the organization’s current revenues come from program fees and membership dues. The bulk of revenues now come in the form of contributions, grants, royalty income and advertising, much of it originating from the gun manufactures. While to my knowledge the American gun industry does not directly sell weapons abroad to parties sanctioned by the UN treaty, they can, and do, sell large quantities of assault weapons to international arms brokers who transfer these weapons to rouge states and other parties engaged in unconscionable mayhem. Meanwhile the NRA conveniently overlooks the complicity of its primary constituents in these heinous transactions.
Many Senators and Congressional representatives facing tough reelection battles are beholden to the NRA for financial support. Take, for example, Sen. Max Baucus (D – Montana), up for reelection next year, who recently announced that he will not accept a treaty that “undermines the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Montanans.” He will, of course, be richly rewarded by the NRA for his stance.
Simply put, the arguments that the UN treaty threatens to undermine the Second Amendment right of U.S. citizens are totally ludicrous! As Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) correctly asserts, the UN Global Arms Treaty “would in no way infringe on the rights of American citizens under domestic law or the Constitution to bear arms.” First of all, the scope of the UN accord is strictly limited to international arms sales, and in no way addresses domestic gun sales within a sovereign state. Furthermore, a long-standing legal principal asserts that no treaty can override the Constitution or U.S. laws.
Of particular concern to myself and others who support international accord is the inflammatory rhetoric coming from Presidential hopeful Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky). Quoting from a fund-raising letter that Senator Paul recently sent out on behalf of the National Association for Gun Rights: “On November 7th, (Obama’s) administration gleefully voted at the UN for a renewed effort to pass the “Small Arms Treaty. I don’t know about you, but watching anti-American globalists plot against our Constitution makes me sick…That’s why I’m helping lead the fight to defeat the UN “Small Arms Treaty” in the United States Senate. And it’s why I need your help today…Ultimately, UN bureaucrats will stop at nothing to register, ban and confiscate firearms owned by private citizens like YOU.”
Beyond a doubt, these inflammatory assertions by Sen. Rand Paul and others of his ilk constitute complete distortion of the facts, designed to mislead both American citizens and our elected representatives – misrepresentations that could carry dire consequences affecting the outcome of the Senate vote on this extremely important international issue.
What needs to be done
As of this writing it is completely up for grabs as to whether Senate Arms Treaty supporters will be able to muster the full 67 votes needed to ratify the treaty.
It is imperative that leading figures within the Obama administration pull all stops to indicate their unwavering support for ratification. In particular, President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry must each personally present a resounding case to the Senate that fully addresses the urgent need for treaty ratification. If at all possible, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon should also be urged to testify before the U.S. Senate.
Indeed, if our country aspires to fulfill its traditional role as champion of the free world, we must quickly ratify the treaty and turn our focused attention to convincing leaders of states throughout the world to ratify and embrace this global accord.
With particular regard to Russia and China, which both abstained from voting on the treaty, we must fully employ our country’s international stature and moral suasion in imploring both nations to ratify the treaty and agree to be governed by its terms. This will not be an easy task, as both Russia and China have been heavily complicit in brokering transactions that have placed vast supplies of armaments into the hands of unscrupulous leaders and warriors throughout the world.
In conclusion, the U.N. Global Arms Treaty constitutes a critically important step in promulgating international political and moral guidelines governing global arms trade. Our nation cannot afford to shirk its duty to fully embrace this treaty and diligently work to ensure its acceptance by nations both large and small, and weak and powerful, throughout the world.
Donna Cassata, article released by Associated Press on April 4, 2013 titled “Global arms treaty appears dead in Senate”.
The Truth-O-Meter “Says 90 percent of Americans and 74 percent of National Rifle Association members support background checks of gun purchasers”. Posted April 4, 2013 (www.politifact.com).
Walter Hickey, “Here’s Who The NRA REALLY Represents”, Business Insider. Posted December 19, 2012. (www.businessinsider.com).
David Weigel, “Read One of the Fundraising Letters Rand Paul is Sending on Behalf of a U.N.-Skeptical Gun Rights Group”. Posted April 3, 2013 (www.slate.com/blogs/weigel).