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As Arms Trade Treaty nears vote at UN, critics in US see a 'gun grab'

UN is set to vote Thursday on a proposed Arms Trade Treaty to regulate global imports and exports of conventional weapons. Backers see a way to prevent human rights abuses. Critics see red flags, including curtailed access for Americans to imported guns.

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An attendee holds a handgun at the 7th annual Border Security Expo in Phoenix, Arizona, March 12. The Arms Trade Treaty, which is set to come to a vote among UN member countries Thursday, would cover trade in conventional weapons ranging from handguns to weapons of war such as missiles and tanks.

Joshua Lott/Reuters/File

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Right as Washington is preoccupied with a series of gun-control measures, the United Nations is nearing approval of an Arms Trade Treaty that opponents in America's gun-rights community say constitutes a back-door gun grab that will trample Second Amendment rights.

Supporters of the treaty, which is set to come to a vote among UN member countries Thursday, decry such arguments as fear-mongering and nonsense. Rather, they say, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is a long-overdue regulation of the global arms import and export trade that will help curtail the flow of weapons into conflict zones and the hands of human rights violators.

The treaty would cover trade in conventional weapons ranging from handguns to weapons of war such as missiles and tanks. It would direct countries exporting or importing arms to assess the risk that such weapons would end up being used to commit terrorist attacks or to engage in human rights abuses including torture and genocide. 

“We have agreements on the standards for trade in everything else that crosses borders, from T-shirts and iron ore to cars and wheat,” says Daniel Prins, secretary general of the ATT conference now under way in New York and chief of the conventional arms branch of the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs. “The arms trade has been an exception to that, but the ATT would provide a global set of standards for sending arms to another country.”

That “set of standards” has nothing to do with setting firearms quality or regulating models and calibers. “This is not a treaty about banning a particular category of weapons,” Mr. Prins notes. Instead, the ATT would establish a “set of standards” for the import and export of arms, with an eye to reducing the flow of arms into conflict zones or into countries where the arms are likely to be used by organized crime or in a way that violates human rights.

For example, the ATT aims to curtail the “shopping around” that often occurs when regimes in conflict with some of their own citizens or nonstate groups are denied coveted weapons by one arms-trading country.

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