The Obama administration has torpedoed the arms trade treaty
A campaigner lays flowers in a mock graveyard set up by the Control Arms coalition next to the UN building in New York last week. Photograph: Andrew Kelly/Reuters
Though nothing in the UN treaty would impact on its domestic gun laws, the US is the world's largest weapons exporter
What is more heavily regulated, global trade of bananas or battleships? In late June, activists gathered in New York's Times Square to make the absurd point that, unbelievably, "there are more rules governing your ability to trade a banana from one country to the next than governing your ability to trade an AK-47 or a military helicopter". So said Amnesty International USA's Suzanne Nossel at the protest, just before the start of the UN conference on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which ran from 2 July to 27 July. Thanks to a last-minute declaration by the United States that it "needed more time" to review the short, 11-page treaty text, the conference ended last week in failure.
There isn't much that could be considered controversial in the treaty. Signatory governments agree not to export weapons to countries that are under an arms embargo, or to export weapons that would facilitate "the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes" or other violations of international humanitarian law. Exports of arms are banned if they will facilitate "gender-based violence or violence against children" or be used for "transnational organised crime". Why does the US need more time than the more than 90 other countries that had sufficient time to read and approve the text? The answer lies in the power of the gun lobby, the arms industry and the apparent inability of Barack Obama to do the right thing, especially if it contradicts a cold, political calculation.
The Obama administration torpedoed the treaty exactly one week after the massacre in Aurora, Colorado. In Colorado, Obama offered promises of "prayer and reflection". As New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg said, commenting on Obama and Mitt Romney both avoiding a discussion of gun control: "Soothing words are nice, but maybe it's time the two people who want to be president of the United States stand up and tell us what they're going to do about it." Gun violence is a massive problem in the US, and it only seems to pierce the public consciousness when there is a massacre. Gun-rights advocates attack people who suggest more gun control is needed, accusing them of politicising the massacre. Yet some elected officials are taking a stand. Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois is seeking a ban on assault weapons, much like the ones in place in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.
The National Rifle Association's executive vice-president, Wayne LaPierre, issued the threat before the UN conference that: "Without apology, the NRA wants no part of any treaty that infringes on the precious right of lawful Americans to keep and bear arms." The NRA organised letters opposing the treaty, signed by 51 senators and 130 members of the House. After the conference ended in failure, the NRA took credit for killing it.
Of course, there is nothing in the treaty that would impact on US domestic gun laws. The rights protected by the cherished Second Amendment ("a well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed") would remain intact. The NRA's interest lies not only with individual gun owners, but also with the US weapons manufacturers and exporters. The US is the world's largest weapons producer, exporter and importer. It is the regulation of this global flow of weaponry that most likely alarms the NRA, not the imagined prospect of the UN taking away the legally owned guns inside the US.
Protesters outside the UN during the ATT conference erected a mock graveyard, with each headstone reading: "2,000 people killed by arms every day." That's more than one person killed every minute. In many places around the world, massacres on the order of Aurora are all too common. Days after Aurora, at least nine people were killed in a US drone strike in northwest Pakistan. Pakistani officials said the victims were suspected militants, but the Obama administration deems all adult-male drone targets as militants unless proven otherwise, posthumously.
After the conference wrapped without success, Suzanne Nossel said: "This was stunning cowardice by the Obama administration, which at the last minute did an about-face and scuttled progress toward a global arms treaty, just as it reached the finish line." These words were doubly strong, as she criticised the very state department where she worked previously, under Hillary Clinton.
The UN has pledged to resume the effort to pass an arms trade treaty, despite the intransigence of the country that Martin Luther King called "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world". Until then, bananas will remain more heavily regulated than battleships and bazookas.
• Denis Moynihan contributed research to this article
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