50 senators: UN Arms Trade Treaty could harm Israel

Kerry signed on to treaty at UNGA but it is unlikely to garner the two-thirds majority needed to ratify it in the Senate

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

A US Navy F-35 fighter jet during a test flight. (US Navy/Wikimedia Commons)
A US Navy F-35 fighter jet during a test flight. (US Navy/Wikimedia Commons)

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of 50 senators have warned US President Barack Obama that they will not ratify the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty signed last month by Secretary of State John Kerry. The lawmakers, who comprise half of the Senate, signed on to a letter this week that expressed concern that ratifying the treaty could limit America’s ability to provide military aid to Israel.

Fifty senators, including all 45 Senate Republicans and Democrats Joe Manchin (D-WV), Mark Begich (D-AK), Kay Hagan (D-NC), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), and Mark Pryor (D-AR), listed a number of reasons for their opposition to the treaty, including that “the State Department has acknowledged that the treaty includes language that could hinder the United States from fulfilling its strategic, legal and moral commitments to provide arms to key allies such as the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the State of Israel.”

The treaty prohibits a state from trading arms if “it has knowledge at the time of authorization that the arms or items would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians protected as such, or other war crimes as defined by international agreements to which it is a party.”

States are also required to assess whether recipients are likely to “commit or facilitate a serious violation” of international humanitarian or human rights law and whether the arms deal could “contribute to or undermine peace or security.” Those clauses – and the range of interpretations that they afford – are at the heart of the critique.

In their letter, the senators said they “urge” Obama “to notify the treaty depository that the US does not intend to ratify the Arms Trade Treaty, and is therefore not bound by its obligations.”

The senators complained that the treaty failed to achieve consensus, and was adopted instead by majority vote in the UN General Assembly. According to the senators, this “violates the red line drawn by the Obama Administration.”

It also “allows amendments by a three-quarters majority vote, circumventing the power and duty of the US Senate to provide its advice and consent on treaty commitments before they are assumed by the United States.” Senators complained that even the State Department described the commitments of the treaty as “ambiguous” and that “the criteria at the heart of the treaty are vague and easily politicized.”

The Senate has also been vocal in its opposition to the treaty due to its alleged inconsistency with the Second Amendment to the US Constitution. In their letter, senators complained that “the treaty includes only a weak non-binding reference to the lawful ownership, use of, and trade in firearms, and recognizes none of these activities, much less individual self-defense, as fundamental individual rights.”

In March, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) introduced an amendment to prevent the United States from entering into the UN Arms Trade Treaty. The amendment passed by a 53-46 vote, with eight Democrats supporting it.

“We may have an ally out there that maybe the UN doesn’t agree with and they would be able to keep us through a treaty from trading arms with our allies – an ally such as Israel, as an example,” Inhofe said.

US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the UN, September 2013 (photo credit: AP/Mary Altaffer)
US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the UN, September 2013 (photo credit: AP/Mary Altaffer)

Nevertheless, Kerry signed on to the treaty last month, during the UN General Assembly. Although 113 states have joined the treaty, only seven have thus far ratified it of the 50 states whose ratification is required in order for the treaty to go into effect. US ratification of the treaty would require approval by two-thirds of the Senate – and senators say that it will not pass that crucial hurdle.

“Despite clear opposition, the Obama administration proceeded in misleading the UN and making the United States a signatory nation of this treaty,” complained Inhofe. “It is time that the administration puts this failed effort to rest once and for all and instead focus on the serious economic and national security problems that threaten our country.”

Manchin, one of the Democratic senators who broke ranks in the vote on the treaty, framed his opposition in the context of constitutional rights.

“Under no circumstances should this country surrender our gun rights to the control of the United Nations,” he said. “While we can work toward improving the regulation of the international trade of weapons, I am very concerned that the rights of law-abiding Americans would be violated by entering into this agreement. I strongly oppose any treaty that infringes on our Second Amendment rights.”

Manchin incurred the wrath of the powerful National Rifle Association when he supported gun control following last year’s shooting attack in Newtown, Connecticut.

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