Kerry Welcomes U.N. Arms Trade Treaty, Ignoring Senate Opposition

Patrick Goodenough | June 4, 2013 | 4:18am EDT
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Britain’s parliamentary undersecretary of state Alistair Burt is one of 67 country representatives to sign the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty, at U.N. headquarters in New York on Monday, June 3, 2013. (U.N. Photo)

( – As nations lined up to sign the newly-negotiated global conventional arms trade treaty on Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States would do so once translation issues were resolved. He did not mention the significant opposition on Capitol Hill.

“We look forward to signing it as soon as the process of conforming the official translations is completed satisfactorily,” Kerry said in a statement welcoming the treaty’s opening for signature at U.N. headquarters.  By the end of the day 67 countries had signed.

(The U.N. has six official languages – Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish – and errors have been found in all translations of the treaty except for the English one. Proposed corrections are being circulated, and member-states have 90 days to challenge the final versions.)

The Obama administration’s restated intention to go ahead and sign the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) sets the stage for a battle with the U.S. Senate, 67 of whose 100 members must support any international treaty for ratification to take place.

Measures before the Senate show the extent of the opposition: An amendment to budget legislation – “To uphold Second Amendment rights and prevent the United States from entering into the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty” – passed on March 23 by a vote of 53-46.

The amendment, sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), won the support of all 45 Republicans, joined by eight Democrats – Sens. Mark Begich (Ala.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Kay Hagan (N.C.), Martin Heinrich (N.M.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Joe Manchin (W.V.), Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Jon Tester (Mont.).

Separately, a resolution introduced in March by Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kans.) expressed the sense of Congress that the president should not sign and the Senate should not ratify the treaty.

Another 35 senators have co-sponsored that measure – and they include Democratic Sens. Manchin and Max Baucus (Mont.).

There is also substantial opposition in the House of Representatives (which does not have a ratification role), with 142 members co-sponsoring a related resolution introduced by Rep. Mike Kelly. (R-Pa.).

In another reflection of congressional disapproval, 130 members signed onto a letter sent by Kelly to President Obama and Kerry last week, voicing opposition to ratification of the ATT “and any effort to treat it as internationally or domestically binding upon the United States.”

“Any treaty that would put the United States – the world’s defender of peace and freedom – on equal footing with the world’s worst dictatorships and terror-sponsors ought to be condemned, dismissed, and ultimately denied our country’s signature,” Kelly said in a statement.

What happened to ‘consensus’?

The treaty was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly last April, with the U.S. joining 153 other nations voting in favor while three countries – Iran, Syria and North Korea – voted no. Another 23 countries abstained, among them Russia and China, both major arms exporters.

That vote was held after an earlier negotiating conference failed to reach an agreement by consensus.

The treaty, which covers weapons ranging from small arms to tanks, helicopters and warships, requires a country to evaluate, ahead of selling arms to another, whether they will violate arms embargoes or be used for acts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The seller is also required to take into account whether the arms transfer will contribute to or undermine peace and security.

Kerry on Monday called the treaty “an important contribution to efforts to stem the illicit trade in conventional weapons, which fuels conflict, empowers violent extremists, and contributes to violations of human rights.”

He disputed some of the issues opponents have raised.

“The ATT will not undermine the legitimate international trade in conventional weapons, interfere with national sovereignty, or infringe on the rights of American citizens, including our Second Amendment rights,” he said.

In their letter to Obama and Kerry, the lawmakers said the treaty was “deeply flawed” and “suffers from vagueness.”

They also argued that the way the treaty was adopted – by General Assembly vote after the negotiations had failed to deliver a consensus agreement – violated one of the “redlines” set down by the Obama administration when it first agreed to enter negotiations in 2009.

The relevant redline stated, “The ATT negotiations must have consensus decision making to allow us to protect U.S. equities,” and a subsequent State Department fact sheet explained why this was viewed as essential.

“Consensus is needed to ensure that all countries can be held to standards that will actually improve the global situation by denying arms to those who would abuse them and to avoid loopholes in the Treaty that can be exploited by those wishing to export arms irresponsibly,” it said.

The lawmakers said in their letter the administration had abandoned this consensus requirement.

“[W]hen the March 2013 negotiating conference failed to reach a consensus agreement, your administration supported the move to adopt the treaty through the U.N. General Assembly, where opponents and abstainers included many of the world’s most important and irresponsible arms importers and exporters, including Iran, North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, Russia, and Egypt,” they wrote.

“The United States thus did not come close to ‘ensur[ing] that all countries can be held to standards that will actually improve the global situation.’

“By failing to uphold this red line, your administration has done grave damage to the diplomatic credibility of the United States,” the signatories said. “In future consensus-based negotiations on this or any other subject, other nations can now threaten to abandon consensus and secure a majority-rule outcome through the U.N. General Assembly.”

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