The Real News at the U.N.: U.S. Signs Arms Trade Treaty

The most important thing to happen at the U.N. this week may not have been a General Assembly speech

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Andrew Gombert / EPA

Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Miguel de Serpa Soares of Portugal after signing the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty in New York City on Sept. 25, 2013

After Secretary of State John Kerry signed the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) at the U.N. on Wednesday morning, the conversation immediately shifted to when, if ever, Congress might ratify it. Republican opposition there may make that an impossibility.

But the White House may not need the Senate’s support to ensure the treaty’s goal of effectively keeping weapons ranging from AK-47s to fighter jets from the clutches of rogue elements. Kerry’s signature may be enough to help fuel the treaty’s enactment, establishing the first global regulation of what is a $70 billion trade industry and restricting the flow of arms into war zones like Syria, where, despite the global focus on chemical weapons, imported conventional weapons have led to the vast majority of the casualties in the country’s ongoing civil war — at least 100,000 dead and counting.

“The big event is the U.S. signing of the treaty. I think that’s what puts pressure on other countries. It gives the U.S. the ability to assist others and be part of how the treaty develops over time,” says Jeff Abramson, an independent arms-trade analyst and former director of the Control Arms secretariat, an arms-control-advocacy group.

The Arms Trade Treaty obligates member states to monitor arms exports and ensure that weapons don’t cross existing arms embargoes or end up being used for human-rights abuses, including terrorism. Member states, with the assistance of the U.N., will put into place enforceable, standardized arms import and export regulations (much like those that already exist in the U.S.) and be expected to track the destination of exports to ensure they don’t end up in the wrong hands. Ideally, that means limiting the inflow of deadly weapons into places like Syria.

(PHOTOS: The Syrian Arms Race: Photographs by Yuri Kozyrev)

But while the U.N. overwhelmingly adopted the treaty in April (Iran, Syria and North Korea were the only ones to vote against it), it only goes into effect when at least 50 states actually ratify it — something only seven countries have done to date. Instead, countries have lined up to sign the document — an endorsement, but a nonbinding one.

The U.S. was the 91st country to sign up, but it’s likely the most important. In addition to its diplomatic clout, the U.S. is the largest arms exporter in the world. Even if Senate ratification is distant, a U.S. signature represents an unwritten affirmation that the world’s largest exporter won’t violate the rules of the treaty, says Abramson. It also encourages other countries, including some other prominent exporters, to sign on, as British Foreign Secretary William Hague observed in a tweet.

The White House has taken advantage of the nonbinding endorsement before, avoiding Congress in what University of California, Irvine, law professor David Kaye termed “stealth multilateralism.”

“The Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations figured out that on some issues, they could circumvent the Senate entirely, and they developed new ways to participate in international forums, sometimes even exercising leadership in institutions that the Senate had refused to allow the United States to join,” Kaye wrote in a recent Foreign Affairs article.

The ATT joins dozens of other international treaties in line for — or in limbo awaiting — congressional approval. Some weapons treaties, like the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, have been signed and then rejected by the Senate. Others, like the Mine Ban Treaty, have not even been signed, even though the U.S. is a leading funder of land mine clean up around the world.

Kerry seemed to set his sights on Congress on Wednesday morning when he addressed head on in his statements the Second Amendment concerns voiced by the powerful National Rifle Association and its allies.

“I want to be clear both about what this treaty is, but I also want to be clear about what it isn’t,” Kerry said. “This treaty will not diminish anyone’s freedom.”

But even if Kerry and the White House can’t win Republican Senators’ support, the treaty is now on track to take effect by the end of next year, according to Abramson. On Wednesday, at least 16 other countries signed on to the treaty, and Mexico became the seventh state to ratify.

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