A visitor examines a rifle with a Zeiss telescope at a gun show in Nuremberg,… (Daniel Karmann / EPA )
WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John F. Kerry signaled Friday that the Obama administration will take a cautious approach on negotiations that begin next week at the United Nations over a proposed international treaty that aims to more tightly control the $60-billion global trade in conventional arms.
U.N. officials and human rights groups have called on the United States to help win support for the treaty, which advocates say could prevent an influx in arms from heightening violence in conflict zones such as Sudan and Syria. The United States is the world's largest arms exporter, and advocates believe that if Washington does not champion the pact, other major arms makers, such as Russia and China, will balk.
The treaty would, for the first time, set international standards for the arms trade, creating requirements intended to make that traffic more transparent and government officials more accountable. Although the United States has strong export rules, only about one-fourth of nations have any laws regulating arms brokers.
Kerry said in a statement that the United States is "steadfast in its commitment to achieve a strong and effective arms trade treaty." He said responsible nations "should have in place control systems that will help reduce the risk that a transfer of conventional arms will be used to carry out the world's worst crimes, including those involving terrorism and serious human rights violations."
At the same time, Kerry said the administration would not allow the treaty to affect the rights of gun owners in the United States, a fear that has mobilized the gun lobby and many members of Congress against the proposal. "We will not support any treaty that would be inconsistent with U.S. law and the rights of American citizens under our Constitution, including the 2nd Amendment," Kerry promised.
He suggested that the way to build support for the treaty is by starting with a recognition that each nation would set its own rules for controlling arms exports and imports.
"An effective treaty that recognizes that each nation must tailor and enforce its own national export and import control mechanisms can generate the participation of a broad majority of states, help stem the illicit flow of conventional arms across international borders and have important humanitarian benefits," he said.
Opponents of the treaty fear that international guidelines could be used not only to restrict sales but to limit imports to the United States as well, a charge advocates reject.
Frank Jannuzi, deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA, said Kerry's statement "affirms Washington's support for a global arms trade treaty that will have important humanitarian benefits and has the potential to prevent serious human rights violations."
He said President Obama "should not be cowed or intimidated by the U.S. gun lobby and the National Rifle Assn."
The administration came in for criticism in July for failing to keep an earlier round of negotiations from grinding to a halt. Those talks took place near the height of the U.S. election season, when the gun-rights issue was even more sensitive with the White House and lawmakers.