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U.N. passes landmark Arms Trade Treaty; some major powers abstain

The United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly this morning to create the first international treaty regulating the global arms trade, a landmark decision that imposes new constraints on the sale of conventional arms to governments and armed groups that commit war crimes, genocide, and other mass atrocities.

The U.N. vote was hailed by arms control advocates and scores of governments, including the United States, as a major step in the international effort to enforce basic controls on the $70 billion international arms trade. But it was denounced by Iran, North Korea, and Syria, for imposing new restrictions that prevent smaller states from buying and selling arms to ensure their self-defense.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry praised the General Assembly for approving "a strong, effective and implementable arms trade treaty that can strengthen global security while protecting the sovereign right of states to conduct legitimate arms trade."

Kerry said that the treaty "applies only to international trade and reaffirms the sovereign right of any state to regulate arms within its territory. As the U.S. has required from the outset of these negotiations, nothing in this treaty could ever infringe on the rights of American citizens under our domestic law or the Constitution, including the Second Amendment."

Kerry said the treaty would establish "a common national standard" -- similar to that already in place in the United States -- for regulating global trade in conventional arms. It would also reduce the risk that arms sales would be used to "carry out the world's worst crimes, including terrorism, genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes."

The 193 member assembly voted 154 to 3 to adopt the treaty. There were 23 abstentions, including major arms traders like China, India, and Russia, as well as countries, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, that have been supplying weapons to armed opposition groups in Syria, The treaty, which will open for signatures on June 3, will go into force 90 days after it is ratified by 50 states.

The vote came four days after Iran, North Korea, and Syria -- three governments who would likely be targeted by the new measures -- blocked the adoption of the treaty by consensus, arguing that it failed to bar sales to armed groups or foreign occupiers, and that it would strengthen the ability of big powers to restrict small states' ability to buy weapons.

But the vote revealed broader misgivings about the treaty by dozens of countries -- including Egypt, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan -- that the treaty would grant an unfair advantage to the world's largest arms exporters. India's chief negotiator, Sujata Mehta, explained her government's decision to abstain, saying today that the treaty "is weak on terrorism and non-state actors." She previously objected that the "weight of obligations is tilted against importing states."

The United States, which co-sponsored the treaty, said that several U.S. agencies will conduct a review of the treaty before it is presented to President Barack Obama for signature. The treaty would also require ratification by the United States Senate.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) -- which has contended the treaty would weaken Second Amendment gun rights in the United States -- has pledged to fight the treaty's ratification in the Senate.

But U.S. officials and several non-governmental organizations, including the American Bar Association, an attorneys' lobbying group, have challenged the NRA's position, saying the treaty would have no impact on Americans' gun rights. The treaty language recognizes the "legitimate trade and lawful ownership, and use of certain conventional arms for recreational, cultural, historical and sporting activities."

Iran, meanwhile, protested last week that the treaty had provided specific protections for U.S. gun owners, while failing to provide protections for people living under foreign occupation.

Under the treaty, states are banned from transferring arms to countries, including Iran and North Korea, that are subject to U.N. arms embargoes, or to countries believed to be preparing to use them to commit genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes.

The treaty would require governments to establish a national record-keeping system that would allow them to track the trade in conventional arms, and to ensure that weapons are not illegally diverted to terrorist organizations or other armed groups. It would also require that governments conduct a risk assessment to determine the likelihood that arms exports are being used to violate or abuse human rights, particularly against women or children.

The arms treaty would apply to several categories of conventional arms, including battle tanks, combat aircraft, warships, attack helicopters, missiles, and small arms. The treaty includes exemptions that would allow the consideration of defense cooperation agreements between governments and allow states to transfer weapons across international borders, so long as the weapons remain under that state's control.

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