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Explainer: What Is The United Nations Arms Trade Treaty?

Tanks and other armored combat vehicles are included in the UN weapons treaty. (file photo)
Tanks and other armored combat vehicles are included in the UN weapons treaty. (file photo)
By Richard Solash
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has signed a landmark treaty at the UN General Assembly in New York aimed at regulating the multibillion-dollar global trade in conventional weapons. RFE/RL looks at how the Arms Trade Treaty works and why it is significant that the United States has signed the international accord.

What does the Arms Trade Treaty seek to do?

The UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) has the ambitious aim of responding to international concern that the $70 billion a year trade in conventional weapons leaves a trail of atrocities in its wake.

The treaty calls for the international sale of weapons to be linked to the human rights records of buyers.

It requires countries to establish regulations for selling conventional weapons.

It calls for potential arms deals to be evaluated in order to determine whether they might enable buyers to carry out genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes.

The treaty also seeks to prevent conventional military weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists or organized criminal groups, and to stop deals that would violate UN arms embargos.

What is the significance of Washington's signature on the treaty?

Experts say that Washington's signature on the document could be the treaty's watershed moment.

The United States is the world's largest arms dealer. So U.S. support and ratification of the accord is essential to its success.

According to Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, formal support from the United States gives the treaty the potential to change the very nature of the global arms trade.

"The United States already has a very robust set of standards and export controls," he says. "This treaty essentially internationalizes the U.S. system and lays down some prohibitions on the transfer of conventional weapons. And this treaty will require all states to establish export laws, to enforce those export laws, and to abide by a common set of standards."

What types of conventional weapons deals does the Arms Trade Treaty seek to regulate?

Conventional weapons covered by the UN Arms Trade Treaty include tanks and other armored combat vehicles, artillery, attack helicopters, naval warships, missiles and missile launchers, and small arms.

It also establishes common international standards for the regulation of the international trade in ammunition, weapons parts, and arms components.

The treaty does not regulate the domestic sale or use of weapons in any country. It also recognizes the legitimacy of the arms trade to enable states to provide for their own security.

What enforcement clauses are contained in the treaty?

There is no clear enforcement mechanism in the UN Arms Trade Treaty. It also remains unclear whether the transfer of conventional weapons in ways other than sales -- for example, such as rental contracts or gifts -- would fall under the treaty.

Nevertheless, arms-control advocates hope the treaty will increase pressure on weapons exporters such as Russia -- which argues that arms sales to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime are permitted because Damascus is not under a UN arms embargo.

The West argues that Russia, a major player in the global arms trade, should stop sending weapons to the Syrian regime because Assad's security forces have used conventional military weaponry to kill tens of thousands of civilians caught up in the civil war.

Who supports the treaty and who doesn't?

The UN General Assembly voted decisively in April to approve the Arms Trade Treaty, ending nearly a decade of negotiations over how strict it should be.

UN members voted 154 to 3 in favor of the accord, with 23 countries abstaining.

Iran, North Korea, and Syria -- long accused of fueling international conflicts through arms shipments -- were the countries to vote against the treaty.

The United States voted in favor of the treaty, despite opposition from influential U.S. gun lobbyists.

The United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, and Canada also voted for the treaty.

Former Soviet republics that voted for the treaty were Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and all three Baltic states.

Also voting yes were Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia.

Russia and China, which are two of the world's leading exporters of conventional weaponry, were among the countries that abstained from the vote.

Others who abstained from the vote include Belarus, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Cuba, Burma, and Angola.

Several abstaining countries objected on grounds that the human rights criteria in the treaty are not defined clearly enough.

To date, 89 countries have signed the treaty, including the United States, which did so on September 25.

To take effect, it must be ratified by at least 50 UN member states. So far, just five countries have done so.

Italy became the first EU state to ratify the accord after it won parliamentary approval there on September 25.

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