"I learned so much about arms control and disarmament at ACA! I learned more about arms control here in four months than I had in all three years at my college."

– Alicia Sanders-Zakre
Intern, Fall 2016
December 16, 2016
Arms Trade Treaty Prompts Sharp Debate

Jefferson Morley

A senior State Department official last month defended the Arms Trade Treaty, signed by the U.S. government in September, after 50 senators wrote to President Barack Obama saying they would oppose the pact.

In the Oct. 15 letter, the senators charged that the treaty undermines U.S. credibility, threatens the rights of gun owners, and impinges on U.S. sovereignty. The lawmakers said they “cannot give [their] advice and consent to this treaty” and “do not regard the U.S. as bound to uphold its object and purpose.”

At a Nov. 7 event at the Stimson Center, Thomas Countryman, the lead U.S. representative at the treaty negotiations, rejected the criticisms as “inaccurate.”

The treaty, which establishes common international standards for transfers of conventional arms, “does not imperil the rights of United States citizens, including those secured by the Second Amendment,” said Countryman, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation. “It does not undermine national sovereignty. It does not require any measure that would impact the rights of American gun owners…[and] it’s fully consistent with existing United States law.”

The White House has not announced when it will send the treaty to the Senate, but the letter signals the hurdles that the ATT will face when the treaty reaches Capitol Hill.

The signatories to the letter, including 46 Republicans and four Democrats, cited six objections.

The first concerned the treaty’s approval by majority vote, not consensus as originally planned, in the UN General Assembly. “We fear that this reversal has done grave damage to the diplomatic credibility of the United States,” the senators said.

ATT supporters point out that U.S. negotiators only abandoned the consensus approach for negotiations in April, after last-minute opposition from Iran, North Korea, and Syria blocked consensus approval of the treaty. Their objections prompted the United States and other countries to present the treaty to the General Assembly, where it was overwhelmingly approved.

The senators argued that the ATT could be amended in the future, leaving the United States subject to provisions that the Senate had not approved. Supporters say that objection is based on a draft of the treaty that was subsequently amended to state that amendments would have no force in any signatory country unless specifically approved by the country.

At the Nov. 7 event, which was organized by the Arms Control Association and the Stimson Center, Countryman said the treaty “reaffirms explicitly the right and responsibility of each country to decide for itself, consistent with its own constitution,…how to deal with conventional arms use exclusively within its own borders.” The senators’ letter called those provisions “weak” and “non-binding.”

The treaty creates a legal responsibility to prevent the diversion of firearms, and that provision “could be used to justify the imposition of controls” within the United States that would violate gun owners’ rights, the senators said.

Countryman disputed that claim, saying, “Our instructions were clear, that we could not agree to any treaty that infringed upon such rights. We did not. This treaty is focused on international trade in conventional weapons.”

The senators also said that the treaty could “hinder the ability of the United States to fulfill its strategic, legal and moral commitments” to selling arms to Israel and Taiwan.

Countryman countered that the treaty is “fully consistent with existing United States law and practice on the international transfer of conventional arms.”

The State Department has offered “to brief senators one at a time or 50 at a time, to listen carefully to their concerns, to express some of the same points that I made today,” Countryman said. “They bear a heavy responsibility in making such a decision.”

Approval of the treaty in the Senate requires a two-thirds majority. Countryman said he did not expect the administration to transmit the treaty to the Senate “in the immediate future.”