March 26, 2013 / 9:31 PM / 6 years ago

What's at stake in U.N. arms trade treaty negotiations?

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Members of the United Nations are in the final days of negotiations on what could become the first international treaty to regulate the $70 billion global conventional arms trade.

Firearms and ammunition are seen on display at an arms market in Maarib city, around 190 km (118 miles) east of the Yemeni capital Sanaa October 14, 2010. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

The treaty drafting conference at the U.N.’s headquarters in New York City will continue through Thursday.

A new draft text was circulated to the states participating in the conference last Friday, which rights groups criticized as disappointing.

Following are questions and answers about the arms treaty conference.


The point of an arms trade treaty is to set standards for all cross-border transfers of any type of conventional weapon - light and heavy. It would also create binding requirements for nations to review all cross-border arms contracts to ensure the munitions will not be used in human rights abuses, terrorism, violations of humanitarian law, do not breach U.N. arms embargoes and are not illegally diverted.

It would require governments to refuse to export weapons to countries that would likely use them to violate human rights or commit war crimes. It would also require governments to regulate arms brokering.


The current draft treaty says that the following weapon types will be covered battle tanks; armored combat vehicles; large-caliber artillery systems; combat aircraft; attack helicopters; warships; missiles and missile launchers; small arms and light weapons, ranging from assault rifles to handguns.

A previous draft said those were the weapons covered by the treaty “at a minimum.” Rights groups complained that the new draft has narrowed the scope of the treaty.

It would not cover unconventional weapons like nuclear, chemical and biological arms. Separate treaties cover those.


Human rights groups, arms control advocates and a majority of the U.N.’s 193 member states want a strong treaty that imposes tough new standards on the largely unregulated arms trade. Many of the treaty’s most ardent supporters come from Europe, Latin America and Africa, though it has supporters from all over the world.

Nearly 120 countries, led by Mexico, issued a joint statement on Monday saying “the overwhelming majority of (U.N.) Member States agree with us on the necessity and the urgency of adopting a strong Arms Trade Treaty. Our voice must be heard.”

Among that statement’s supporters were major arms producers Britain and Germany. The other four top arms exporters - the United States, Russia, China and France - did not endorse it.

The five permanent Security Council members - the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia - issued their own joint statement of support for a treaty that “sets the highest possible common standards by which states will regulate the international transfer of conventional arms.”

The five also said that “an effective (treaty) should not hinder the legitimate arms trade or the legitimate right to self defense under the U.N. Charter.”

The main reason the arms trade talks are taking place at all is that the United States - the world’s biggest arms trader - reversed U.S. policy on the issue after President Barack Obama was first elected and decided in 2009 to support a treaty.

Delegates have expressed concern that other major arms producers like Iran, Pakistan and others might take issue with some of the provisions in the treaty and demand the inclusion of language that weakens it and adds loopholes. Since the treaty-drafting conference works on the basis of consensus, any country can veto the outcome if it chooses to do so.


According to the U.N. Office of Disarmament, it will not do any of the following: interfere with domestic arms commerce or the right to bear arms in member states; ban the export of any type of weapon; harm states’ legitimate right to self-defense; undermine national arms regulation standards already in place.

The National Rifle Association, the powerful U.S. gun rights lobby group, is strongly opposed to the arms trade treaty. The group has vowed to fight the convention’s ratification by the U.S. Senate if Washington backs it at the United Nations.

The NRA says the treaty would undermine gun ownership rights under the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The American Bar Association, an attorneys’ lobbying group, last month disputed the NRA position, saying in a paper that “ratification of the treaty would not infringe upon rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment.”


If the conference fails to agree to a treaty because it cannot reach the required consensus, delegates say they can put it to a vote in the U.N. General Assembly to rescue it. Either way, if a treaty is approved, national legislatures will need to ratify it.


- Ammunition. Most countries and rights groups want ammunition to be covered comprehensively in the treaty. Exports of ammunition are covered in the draft treaty but not imports. The United States has said it opposes inclusion of ammunition. Rights groups say coverage of ammunition is inadequate.

- Self-defense. Some delegations are insisting that the draft include more language on the right of countries to legitimate self-defense. That is because some major arms-importing states, especially in the Middle East, have expressed concern that their ability to import weapons could suffer if the treaty comes into force.

- Risk of diversion. Some countries want the risk of diversion of weapons to unintended recipients, such as rebel groups or governments under a U.N. arms embargo, to be a criterion for refusing to grant an export license.

- “Overriding.” The current draft says that arms exports should be canceled if there is an “overriding” risk that they could be used in human rights violations. Some countries have suggested that a better threshold would be if there is a “substantial” risk involved.

- Exemptions. There are a number of scenarios under which arms deals would be exempt in the current draft, such as defense cooperation agreements - something India wanted - and gifts, loans and leases of weapons. Supporters of a tough treaty call them loopholes and want them removed.

- Reporting. The current draft says countries will send reports to the U.N. on their international arms trade but does not call for them to be made public. Western nations want such reports to be made public but countries like China, Iran and others do not want that information disseminated openly.

Reporting By Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Paul Simao

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