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UN Passes Landmark Arms Treaty


The U.N. General Assembly vote approving the first U.N. treaty regulating the international arms trade, April 2, 2013.

The U.N. General Assembly vote approving the first U.N. treaty regulating the international arms trade, April 2, 2013.

The United Nations has overwhelmingly approved a landmark treaty regulating trade in conventional arms.

The legally binding treaty sets international standards to regulate the import, export and transfer of conventional weapons - from battle tanks, warships and attack helicopters to small arms and light weapons. Major arms exporters, such as the United States and Russia, as well as major importers like China, India and Pakistan, took part in the negotiations.

The vote in the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday was 154-3, with 23 abstentions. The three nations voting against the treaty were Iran, Syria and North Korea. China and Russia were among the abstentions.

The Arms Treaty

  • Approved in U.N. General Assembly by a vote of 154 to 3, with 23 abstentions
  • North Korea, Iran and Syria voted against the treaty
  • Regulates trade in conventional arms
  • Does not ban or prohibit the export of any type of weapon
  • Does not impair states' right to self-defense
Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association, an independent research firm, said the treaty is "historic in the sense that it is the first time that there will be international standards to guide how countries authorize weapons transfers - and the first time that there will be annual reporting on those transfers by all of the state signatories of the new arms trade treaty.”

Human Rights Part of Arms Treaty

Martin Butcher, arms policy adviser with the international humanitarian organization Oxfam, said the treaty also establishes key human rights criteria.

“It’s really important that this treaty puts human rights and humanitarian law in control of the arms trade," said Butcher. "The states will now have obligations not to transfer weapons to countries where human rights are being abused, where for example civilians are being killed by a government - that’s a strong obligation.”

Paul Holtom, arms transfer expert with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), said the treaty also regulates the transfer of ammunition.

Ammunition Regulated by Treaty

“The case has been made very strongly by states from Latin America and Africa that they feel it’s one thing to control the weapons, to control items," said Holtom, "but they feel that it’s the small munitions that are a key problem in terms of the fuel for many of the conflicts.”

Daryl Kimball agreed, saying "we have to remember that AK-47s last a long, long time - these are durable weapons. But they can’t function without a fresh supply of ammunition. So these requirements on the export of ammunition are very important."

No Enforcement Mechanisms

Some experts pointed out that the treaty does not have any enforcement mechanisms. But Oxfam’s Martin Butcher said other means can be used to make states accountable for their actions.

“There will be a lot of moral pressure on countries. They will come together on a regular basis and scrutinize what each other is doing," said Butcher. "And we shouldn’t underestimate the power of that moral pressure on countries to make them change their behavior.”

The United Nations approval of the treaty brings to a close seven years of negotiations. The pact will now be open for signature and will become part of international law once 50 countries ratify it.
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    Andre de Nesnera

    Andre de Nesnera is senior analyst at the Voice of America, where he has reported on international affairs for more than three decades. Now serving in Washington D.C., he was previously senior European correspondent based in London, established VOA’s Geneva bureau in 1984 and in 1989 was the first VOA correspondent permanently accredited in the Soviet Union.

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