Editorial: Merchants of death need to be reined in

Published: Thursday, Apr. 4, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 12A
Last Modified: Thursday, Apr. 4, 2013 - 8:11 am

Its value may turn out to be as much symbolic as practical, yet the U.N. General Assembly sent a resounding message by passing the first set of ground rules on the global arms trade.

Tuesday's action put the world community on record that a wide array of weapons should not be sold if they are going to be used to commit atrocities, enable genocide or aid terrorism. Countries would also agree to crack down on letting weapons get into the black market.

The human rights groups pushing the treaty hope it will increase public pressure on arms sellers to at least consider the morality of what their customers intend to do with their products.

As it is, the international arms trade is a corrupt and bloody business.

Each year, experts say, $70 billion worth of tanks, artillery, missiles, helicopters, rifles and other conventional weapons are bought and sold, often illegally.

You don't have to look far to see their deadly toll. So far, 70,000 people have been killed in the civil war in Syria, which is not under a U.N. arms embargo. Illicit arms trafficking is fueling conflicts across Africa that are killing its sons and daughters and holding back the continent's progress.

Even with that backdrop, the treaty took seven long years to negotiate, and its implementation is years away. Even if the necessary 50 nations ratify it, there is no specific method to enforce it.

The vote on Tuesday was an overwhelming 154-3. While three major arms sellers – China, India and Russia – abstained from voting, the United States, by far the world's biggest arms exporter, voted in favor.

Government agencies and groups including the American Bar Association that have studied the agreement say it would not infringe on the right to bear arms or restrict domestic gun sales.

Nonetheless, the National Rifle Association is adamantly opposed. That means the U.S. Senate appears unlikely to ratify it anytime soon – another sign of the outsized power of the pro-gun lobby over our politicians.

The three "no" votes were Iran, North Korea and Syria. The 23 nations that abstained from the vote also included countries with a history of human rights violations such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

Does the Senate really want to be in that dubious company?

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