The United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to approve the first-ever treaty to regulate the enormous global trade in conventional weapons, for the first time linking sales to the human-rights records of the buyers.
The vote on the Arms Trade Treaty came after an effort to achieve a consensus on the treaty among all 193 member states of the United Nations failed last week, with Iran, North Korea and Syria blocking it. Those three countries, often ostracized as pariahs, contended the treaty was full of deficiencies and had been structured to be unfair to them.
The treaty would require states exporting conventional weapons to develop criteria that would link exports to avoiding human-rights abuses, terrorism and organized crime. It would also ban shipments if they were deemed harmful to women and children. Countries that join the treaty would have to report publicly on sales every year.
Although the treaty has no compulsory enforcement mechanism, it exposes the arms-trade process to new levels of transparency that proponents of the treaty say will help severely limit illicit weapons deals going forward.
The vote was heavily lopsided in favor, with 154 supporting it and the same three nations that had blocked consensus approval last week opposing.
Twenty-three others, including a handful of Latin American countries as well as Russia — one of the largest arms exporters — abstained. Vitaly I. Churkin, the Russian envoy to the United Nations, said Russian misgivings about what he called ambiguities in the treaty, including how terms like genocide would be defined, had pushed his government to abstain.
Support was particularly strong among many African countries — even if the compromise text was weaker than some had anticipated — with most governments asserting that over the long run the treaty would curb the arms sales that have fueled so many conflicts.
Nations can begin joining the treaty in early June, and it goes into effect as international law once 50 have ratified it. Given that the vote in the General Assembly was so overwhelmingly in support, it is expected to go into effect this year.
In the run-up to the vote on Tuesday, numerous states objected to the treaty because they said it was heavily weighted in favor of the exporters — allowing them to make subjective judgments about which states met the humanitarian guidelines. The treaty could be abused in the future as a means to foment unjust political pressure, said several countries, including Cuba, Nicaragua and Syria.
What impact it will have on the global conventional weapons trade — and over what period of time — is a more difficult question. Experts are certain it will change things eventually. In the shorter term it is more difficult to assess.
The United States and many European countries say they already have arms sales guidelines in effect that tie sales to the human-rights records of the buyers and other issues included in the treaty.
It is considered unlikely that the treaty will have any effect on the supply of outside weapons to the Syrian government, for example, because Iran is opposed to it and Russia is hesitant. Both are the main conduits for conventional weapons to Damascus.
Those who pushed hard for the treaty, especially among rights groups, thought it would have an important long-term impact, however.
“The Arms Trade Treaty provides a powerful alternative to the body-bag approach currently used to respond to humanitarian crises,” said Raymond Offenheiser, the president of Oxfam America. “Today nations enact arms embargoes in response to humanitarian crises only after a mass loss of life. The treaty prohibits the weapon sales in the first place.”
It should help shut down safe havens where rogue arms dealers can sell weapons to war criminals with impunity, he said.
Frank Jannuzi, head of Amnesty International's Washington office, said the final draft of the treaty was not perfect but represented what many rights groups considered an enormous advance.
“To the extent that there's any enforcement mechanism in this treaty, it's an actual benchmark in which we can judge states' behavior, whereas before it was extremely subjective,” he said. “Now there's a process. So that's a step forward. For all those unlicensed exports that end up fueling violence, this treaty begins to get a handle on that through much more rigorous licensing and reporting.”
The treaty covers trade in tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-caliber weapons, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and launchers, small arms and light weapons. Ammunition exports are subject to the same criteria as the other war matériel. Imports are not covered.
Asked about the potential impact of the treaty, Thomas M. Countryman, the assistant secretary of state who led the American delegation to the talks, said he did not expect an instant impact on the level of trade nor the level of violence around the world.
But over a longer period of time, he said before the vote, “I think it will contribute to a reduction in violence.” More states will impose controls on their own legal exports and the treaty demands more effective action against black-market arms brokers and the diversion of weapons, he said.
Despite repeated assurances by Obama administration officials that the treaty would not affect American domestic use of firearms or the Second Amendment, the National Rifle Association has criticized the treaty and vowed to fight ratification in the Senate.
Mr. Countryman downplayed any negative effect on the American arms industry, which accounts for about 30 percent of the $60 billion to $70 billion annual trade in conventional arms.
“This treaty will bring much of the rest of the world not up to the American standards but much closer to the American standards,” he said. “In that sense, I believe it levels the playing field and gives American manufacturers a better competitive position in the world. ”
There were also doubters. The seven years of negotiations and repeated efforts to water down the treaty raised doubts about just how sincere the implementation might be.
“It is clear that while many countries want a strong and robust treaty,” said Lyndira Oudit, a senator from Trinidad and Tobago and a member of a group of international legislators who pushed for passage, “some actually seem to want a weak one, with vague language and narrow definitions, which allow for wide interpretation and maintenance of the status quo, both of players and of process.”
Indonesia, Russia, Syria and others objected to the fact that the treaty did not ban outright arms transfers to rebel groups and other nonstate actors.
Western nations, including the largest arms exporters, opposed any specific reference to nonstate actors because they argued that there were times when national liberation movements needed protection from abusive governments. Supporters said the treaty covers nonstate actors because all conventional weapons sales will be judged under the same criteria, and refers to “unauthorized end user or end users.”