Government representatives from more than 190 countries, under the watchful eyes of gun control advocates such as Amnesty International and the Control Arms Coalition, are currently in negotiations at the United Nations headquarters in New York to hammer out the terms of the first UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The treaty is supposed to fill the gap caused by the absence of commonly agreed international standards for the transfer of conventional arms, including guns, and their diversion to the illicit market.
Negotiators are working feverishly towards completing their work so that a treaty will be ready to be signed by the end of this month. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may be in New York for the occasion.
Things got off to a curious start as the Palestinians tried to take a short-cut towards achieving upgraded UN member state status by attempting to be seated as a full-fledged state party to the treaty negotiations. The gambit did not work, but the Palestinians did secure a seat in the front row of the conference room where talks on the treaty are taking place. And the Palestinians’ patron Iran was elected to a vice president position on the 15-member executive committee steering the talks.
After that inglorious beginning, the talks began in earnest. Some of the talks are being held behind closed doors. Other meetings, including a plenary session that I attended, are open to the press. Documents compiling member state comments as well as working committee chairman drafts are periodically circulated among the participants.
One such working draft of possible treaty language, dated July 14, 2012, tried to assuage the concerns of gun rights proponents, particularly in the United States, that the treaty would interfere with their constitutional right to keep and bear arms. It did so by affirming in its preamble “the sovereign right of States to determine any regulation of internal transfers of arms and national ownership exclusively within their territory, including through national constitutional protections on private ownership.”
The problem is that preambles have no binding legal effect in a treaty or a contract. Thus, the disclaimer is legally meaningless. What counts are the operative provisions within the body of the document. The proposed treaty language does not clearly define its jurisdictional limitation to covering only exports and imports between and among the member states. It could be interpreted as requiring regulation and control of the domestic possession and sale of firearms if there is any chance, no matter how remote, that such firearms could be, in the words of the draft text, “diverted” to “unauthorized end users.”
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