In a historic move that culminated more than a decade of work, the United Nations on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a treaty intended to regulate the multibillion-dollar international arms trade.
The 154-to-3 vote, which was greeted by applause and cheers in the often-staid General Assembly chamber, occurred despite concerns over human rights atrocities around the globe and objections from victims of armed conflicts in Latin America.
The treaty is a first-ever global accord that should lead to a reduction in illicit arms that, supporters contend, end up in the hands of terrorist or organized crime groups. The U.N. hopes to enforce the treaty through the creation of a Register of Conventional Arms, which will make information about arms transfers between countries transparent.
The United States was among the countries in the 193-member body that voted for the accord, which North Korea, Iran and Syria voted against. Almost two dozen countries abstained, including China and Russia.
Survivors of armed conflict, who have observed negotiations, said the final version of the treaty didn’t include any provisions that addressed aiding victims who had been permanently disabled by the small arms and mass-casualty weaponry that the treaty seeks to regulate. A Mexican mission official, whose country strongly favored the treaty, said after the vote that it was a foundation for future work that could include a focus on victims.
“This is an excellent move by the international community,” which was eager for an international security success, said Roberto Dondisch, head treaty negotiator for the Mexico’s U.N. delegation. “This treaty should provide us with a basis of actually working together in terms of fulfilling those issues that might not be already covered by the treaty — that we all know we have to address them.”
Groups that sought to include victims’ benefits in the final document say they felt ignored by negotiators. A floor vote was scheduled after consensus could not be achieved.
“It’s important for the survivors and leaders to speak up and say, ‘Hey, we have a big problem,’ ” said Alex Galvez, executive director of the Guatemalan-based Transitions Foundation, which serves the country’s disabled community.
At age 14, Galvez was shot at point-blank range with a gun that he says remained on the black market after Guatemala’s 30-year civil war. The lower part of his body remains paralyzed.
“It’s difficult [for survivors] when you don’t have anyone supporting you financially,” said Galvez, 36. “Instead of investing so much money on ammunition and weapons, [countries] should help us to create programs that will help all these people that are getting injured by these weapons.”
But even a treaty that does not address the lifelong medical needs of post-conflict victims is better than no treaty at all, he said.
The estimated annual number of deaths caused by armed violence globally ranges from 280,000 to 378,000, according to Oxfam America, which led a campaign in favor of the agreement. Annual arms sales are between $50 billion and $60 billion, with the U.S. selling $220 billion worth of arms to the developing world between 2004 and 2011, according to a congressional report.
Anna Macdonald, Oxfam’s head of arms control, heralded the treaty as a warning to “warlords and dictators that their time is up.”
“They will no longer be able to operate and arm themselves with impunity,” MacDonald said in a statement after the vote.
“We know we’re not getting everything we want in the treaty, but it’s potentially a massive victory for human rights globally,” said Scott Stedjan, a senior policy advisor at Oxfam America. “This is the easy part. Implementation is the hard part.”
Implementation was a sticking point for those who were ambivalent about the agreement. A handful of states expressed serious reservations, most notably from countries considered the worst human rights offenders.
Negotiators from Iran, North Korea and Syria, who blocked the treaty’s adoption by consensus last Thursday, argued that too many loopholes exist in the treaty and that it could be used against certain member states for political gain. And they charged that the U.S. and other countries that export weapons will have a huge advantage over countries that import weapons.
At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that the administration was “pleased with the outcome” and that it “achieves the objectives that we set out for this negotiation.”
The treaty must now be approved by Congress and it will take effect after 50 countries ratify it. Carney said the White House would follow “normal procedures to conduct a thorough review of the treaty text to determine whether to sign the treaty.” He did not know how long that would take.
Latin American members, including Colombia, Guatemala and El Salvador, delivered a joint statement with Mexico pledging to get to work on implementation, although no timetable was given.
“We know that the final text does not fully meet everyone’s expectations,” the statement said. “However, the Treaty enables us to make it stronger, and through its implementation, to adapt it to future developments.”
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon praised the adoption.
“This is a victory for the world’s people,” the U.N. leader said in a written statement. “I applaud states for their willingness to compromise on a number of complex issues, thus making it possible for us to have a balanced and robust treaty text.”
But that’s not enough for Jesús Martínez, a Salvadoran conflict survivor, who at age 17 lost both of his legs in a landmine accident walking to his job.
“It was very difficult because Central American countries are not prepared to deal with people with these types of disabilities.” said Martínez, director of the Landmine Survivor’s Network in El Salvador.
“We can share our opinion with official delegates and let them know our feeling, but for this kind of treaty, they feel it is not possible to include the survivor’s voice,” he added.