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Why the UN Arms Trade Treaty Should be Obama's Gun Control Legacy

by Lucas Eaves, published
Credit: UN

UN arms trade treaty

The question of gun control has fiercely reentered the American dialogue and in 2013 the issue is set to incur an intense battle within Congress.

If the issue of gun control in the United States desperately needs to be addressed, President Obama needs to act on a second front and support an historical treaty regulating the arms trade. In March 2013, the UN will reconvene in another attempt to reach an agreement on an international treaty that would regulate the trade of conventional weapons.

This upcoming conference is the last opportunity to reach an agreement in the UN structure, according to Dr. Natalie Goldring, a senior research fellow at the Center for Security Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

The issue of regulating the international arms trade has lasted more than two decades. According to NGOs in favor of the treaty, there are approximately 639 million small arms and light weapons in the world today, killing one person every minute and leaving millions of others living in fear. Easy access to weapons in conflict zones has been detrimental to the progression of peace, as well as allowed devastating human rights violations; Sudan, Syria and Congo being the most recent examples of such atrocities.

Additional costs of the arms trade include its impact on the economic development of conflict regions such as Africa, as well as widespread corruption in arms transactions. However, contrary to others goods, there has never been an agreement on the international trade of arms in a global market where it is currently more difficult to trade fruits than guns.

Among the countries reluctant to see stricter market regulation for guns are China, Iran, Egypt, Syria, but also the United States, the world's number one weapons dealer with 40% of the market for conventional weapons. In fact, in 2006, the United States, under the Bush administration, was the only country to oppose the resolution that started the negotiations for an international treaty on the sale of small arms and light weapons.

In 2009, the Obama administration broke with this tradition, and entered negotiations before withdrawing again at the last minute. This was the major reason behind the failure of the negotiation round in July 2012. The November election was coming, and as usual the gun control issue was a topic to be avoided by political campaigns. The NRA had an effective campaign about the potential consequences the treaty would have on the 2nd Amendment, leading 51 Senators to oppose the treaty.

The purpose of the treaty is to create a framework that would prohibit the international transfer of weapons in situations where these weapons are "likely to be used for grave violations of international human rights, humanitarian law." The treaty is in no way addressing the issue of how the United States manages its internal weapon trade, and thus would have no affect on the 2nd Amendment.

While it is expected that in an international negotiation not every player will leave completely satisfied with the result, the absence of agreement from the biggest weapons manufacturer in the world will considerably affect the chances of a successful outcome. Thankfully, the United States has agreed to participate in the March negotiation round.

The Obama administration appears to be serious about tackling the scourge of gun violence in the U.S., but its legacy could be truly great by successfully addressing gun trade around the world. The U.S. delegation should actively participate in helping the UN Arms Trade Treaty conference be a success, as well as make sure that the pro-gun lobby does not misinform the public and endanger the treaty's success.

In July, the US delegation already imposed many restrictions in the treaty in order to make sure the Second Amendment remains protected. Despite these guaranties, the NRA has already announced they will continue to oppose the Arms Trade Treaty.

Now is time for political courage to finally tackle an issue which has been too costly for humankind for far too long.

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