What the U.N. Arms Treaty Will (or Won't) Accomplish

Apr 5, 2013

Members of a combined Afghan and coalition security force collected a cache of weapons after clearing a known Haqqani network foreign fighter encampment site in Paktika province, Afghanistan - July 21, 2011.
Credit isafmedia / Flickr

The U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly approved the first international treaty regulating the multi-billion dollar global arms trade Tuesday.

Iran, North Korea and Syria voted "no" on Tuesday, while Russia and China, both major arms exporters, abstained.

Suzette Grillot is the co-author of the 2009 book The International Arms Trade. She says Syria opposed the treaty because it does nothing to prevent weapons from flowing to non-state actors, like the Syrian opposition.

"The United States, China, everyone else doesn't want to include that in the treaty," Grillot says. "And there's an important reason why: because the United States does want arms to flow to people like the opposition in Syria."

Joshua Landis, one of this country's leading Syria watchers, says the U.S. is trying to restrict arms flow to the Syrian government from Iran and Russia, while the CIA is simultaneously trying to facilitate arms flow to the rebel groups.

"This just brings up all of the crazy politics, and 'What's in a Name?' and how difficult it is to decide who the good guys are, and who the bad guys [are], and get the whole world to agree on it," Landis says.

Grillot says even though the U.S. signed the treaty, the Senate likely wouldn't ratify it due to pressure from gun rights groups in the U.S., and the fact that it has nothing to do with domestic weapons policy.

"This treaty is really all about illicit trafficking, and illicit transfers," Grillot says. "It limits transfers to countries that are under embargo, countries that are involved in genocide, and countries that are involved in crimes against humanity."

Rebecca Cruise says these vague definitions make the possibility of U.S. ratification even less likely, especially since even getting this treaty to a vote in the U.N. General Assembly has already taken nearly three years.