In My Opinion

UN arms treaty may succeed despite Iran, North Korea, Syria — and NRA

Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias could not believe his ears when he heard that the United Nations had overwhelmingly approved a treaty to curb international arms sales, a cause he had been championing for nearly two decades.

“I never imagined that I would see this in my lifetime,” Arias told me hours after the U.N. approved the treaty Tuesday by a 154-to-3 vote, with 23 abstentions. “It was a quixotic move for those of us who started it, but it worked.”

Arias recalled that he convened a meeting of eight Nobel laureates, including Elie Wiesel and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in 1997 that published an open letter to call for an international code of conduct to regulate arms sales. In 2006, when Arias became president for the second time, Costa Rica co-sponsored the treaty’s first draft resolution.

“This treaty will have a big impact,” Arias said. “It will not only curb arms sales to governments that use them to repress their people, or to carry out wars, but will also free countries’ resources that can be used to help reduce poverty.”

Under the treaty, which has to be ratified by 50 countries to become effective, countries that export arms will have to make sure that their weapons don’t go to nations that are under U.N. Security Council arms embargoes, such as Iran.

Not surprisingly, the only three countries that voted against it were Iran, North Korea and Syria. Among the 23 countries that abstained were Russia and China, and the only Latin American countries that abstained were Cuba, Bolivia and Ecuador (Venezuela didn’t vote because of a mistake, but later said it would have abstained).

The treaty also calls for arms exporting countries to demand data on final users and other concrete measures from importers to make sure that weapons don’t reach organized crime or terrorist groups.

In what is heralded as a major victory for Mexico and Central America, among others, the treaty includes small arms and light weapons, such as semi-automatic rifles that are sold by some of the estimated 12,000 U.S. gun shops along the border with Mexico. More than 50,000 people have been killed in Mexico’s drug wars over the past six years, most of them with weapons smuggled from the United States.

What are the chances of it being ratified by 50 countries, and especially by the United States, the world’s biggest arms seller? I asked Arias.

Arias responded that considering that 154 countries supported the treaty, ratification by at least 50 countries is likely. As for the United States, he conceded that chances of U.S. Senate ratification are slim. “I don’t see Republicans voting for it,” he said.

The powerful pro-gun U.S. National Rifle Association lashed out at the treaty hours after its approval. It said that the treaty’s inclusion of what the NRA calls “civilian’’ firearms “threatens individual firearm ownership” as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

My opinion: The NRA’s claim that there is such a thing as “civilian” firearms that should be excluded from the U.N. treaty is ludicrous. It makes little difference whether innocent people are shot at by a tank, an AK-47 or a semi-automatic weapon. Guns falling in the wrong hands kill people, whatever their caliber.

Granted, much like happened with the 1997 Organization of American States arms trafficking convention, which was signed by former President Bill Clinton but not ratified by the Senate, the U.N. treaty may be signed by President Barack Obama but not ratified by the Senate. And that, in turn, may make it harder to put greater pressure on China and Russia to sign the treaty.

But the U.N. treaty, despite complaints from Iran, North Korea, Syria and the NRA, will become a powerful tool to start limiting arms sales to human rights abusers and organized crime. Even now, its provisions demanding intelligence exchanges on arms smuggling routes and illegal suppliers, among others, will start pushing countries to cooperate against arms sales to rogue regimes.

Even the U.S. Congress may eventually be persuaded to ratify it. Just like is happening with U.S. immigration debate — in which right-wing anti-immigration groups and their friends at Fox News are rapidly losing ground in U.S. public opinion polls — the NRA leadership may soon find itself increasingly isolated in its blind opposition to almost any measure to reduce gun violence.

Maybe Arias is not overly optimistic, and the U.N. treaty will help reduce killings around the world. It may be remembered as one of the best things the United Nations has done in a long time.

Read more Andres Oppenheimer stories from the Miami Herald

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