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By Sue Owen August 28, 2013

U.N. treaty is about weapons systems moving between countries

CLARIFICATION, 4:06 p.m., Aug. 28, 2013: We amended this story to clarify that an explanation naming Sudan and Chad is hypothetical.


"Ever since its founding 65 years ago, the U.N. has been hell-bent on bringing the U.S. to its knees," U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Friendswood, said in a recent fundraising letter.

The letter, forwarded to PolitiFact by a reader Aug. 19, 2013, sought donations to the National Association for Gun Rights to battle "the U.N.’s ‘Small Arms Treaty’ " and said that the treaty’s provisions include "mandating a new international gun registry."

Stockman also wrote that the treaty "sets the stage for confiscation on a global scale." A "gun registry" might facilitate that by telling the United Nations where everybody’s guns are. We wondered whether the treaty really creates a registry.

We did not hear back from Stockman or the association about this claim, so we were unable to determine when the letter was sent out or to verify it had not been altered. But the same claim appears on a web page at the association’s site with a shorter version of the letter also attributed to Stockman.

PolitiFact has looked at similar claims about the United Nations before, most recently finding that a letter supposedly outlining a U.N. plan to "disarm civilians" was fake. In December 2012, PolitiFact Texas rated as Pants on Fire a chain email saying the Obama administration planned to use international treaties to ban all U.S. weapons.

And in August 2012, PolitiFact Georgia tackled a claim very similar to Stockman’s. Georgia Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Broun said in a video from the same gun-rights group Stockman was supporting, "If passed by the U.N. and ratified by the U.S. Senate, the U.N. Small Arms Treaty would almost certainly force the United States to … create an international gun registry, setting the stage for full-scale gun confiscation."

PolitiFact Georgia rated that claim, including its implication of confiscating guns, as False. Among its findings: A July 27, 2012, draft of an Arms Trade Treaty that failed to gain U.N. members’ approval would have required the U.S. to report information on international arms sales.

Some background from that story: The U.N. has been working on a treaty to regulate the global arms trade -- not just small arms -- for years. Backers say it would curtail mass killings and terrorism and keep dictators from killing their own people.

On April 2, 2013, according to the U.N.’s website, the organization’s General Assembly "adopted the landmark Arms Trade Treaty, regulating the international trade in conventional arms."

The U.S. said "Yes" in that vote, and White House spokesman Jay Carney said Jun. 3, 2013, that President Barack Obama planned to sign the treaty "before the end of August," saying it was "in the interest of the United States." For the treaty to take force in the U.S., it would need to be ratified by the U.S. Senate, which on March 23, 2013, voted 53-46 to insert its formal opposition to the treaty into Senate spending legislation.

The text of the treaty says its purpose is to regulate the international arms trade and prevent illicit sales and transfers. It applies to arms, ammunition and parts moving across a national border, specifically conventional arms in categories such as "warships," "combat aircraft" and "small arms and light weapons."

The treaty requires nations to deny authorization to exports of such armaments if they will be used for terrorism, to commit genocide, to attack civilians or in other war crimes, and to take "appropriate measures" if they detect that a shipment has been diverted.

Nations are required to maintain a "national control system, including a national control list," report exports and imports to the U.N. each year and regulate brokering with measures that "may include requiring brokers to register," but the treaty doesn’t specify how countries must carry out these directions.

Daniel Prins, chief of the Conventional Arms branch of the U.N. Office for Disarmament Affairs, told us by phone that the national control list will be "an enumeration of the types of weapons you will report," starting with the categories in the treaty (warships, combat aircraft, etc.).

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Then, each year, nations will report imports and exports in the categories on their lists, Prins said: "35 tanks to Germany," for example.

Countries can be more specific, but it’s up to them, he said.

The treaty emphasizes that the U.N. is leaving regulation of the arms trade within a country entirely up to that country. The preamble says the parties to the treaty reaffirm "the sovereign right of any state" to regulate arms in its own territory "pursuant to its own legal or constitutional system." It also says the parties are "mindful of legitimate trade and lawful ownership."

Article 12 of the treaty requires member nations to keep records of exports and says each country "is encouraged" to keep records on arms transferred into or authorized to ship through "territory under its jurisdiction." Countries are "encouraged to include in those records" the "quantity, value, model/type," the exporting and importing countries and "end users, as appropriate."

Stockman’s letter includes some of the language in Article 12. Stockman wrote, "The registry must include the ‘quantity, value, model/type, authorized international transfers of conventional arms’ and the identity of the ‘end user.’ "

But in the treaty, recording those details is "encouraged," not required. Though Article 12 deals primarily with exports, its language also encourages keeping records -- possibly including "end users" -- on arms transferred into a country.

Prins said the importers, exporters and "end users" referred to in the treaty will most often be nations, not individuals.

"This is a treaty on conventional arms, so it’s about battle tanks and attack helicopters and all that stuff," as well as small arms, Prins said. "For each individual weapons system that you export, you want to see where that ends up and where it’s being used."

Giving a hypothetical example, he said, "If you send that to Sudan and the next moment you see it actually popping up in Chad, then we have an ‘end use’ issue. Because if all went well, (Sudan has) signed an end-user certificate on that transaction," meaning "they are supposed to be the last owner and user." If the weapons system were used by another country, that would be a breach of contract.

He said there should be no effect on, for example, a U.S. citizen buying a gun from a foreign broker because "whatever broker you engage will need to be registered already with the U.S. government to be able to function as an arms broker." That’s because the U.S. has some of the strongest arms import and export legislation in the world, he said.

With this treaty, Prins said, "we’re trying to get the world to adopt a transfer system that comes closer to what the U.S. already has."

Our ruling

Stockman said a U.N. treaty is  "mandating a new international gun registry." His claim takes a treaty intended to curtail illicit weapons trade between countries and describes it as a step toward confiscating gun owners’ property.

Nations that ratify the Arms Trade Treaty must track conventional arms that move across their borders, share some information about the transfers with the U.N. and other countries, then report the imports and exports in broad categories such as "battle tanks" to the U.N. each year. They must also regulate brokers, but requiring them to "register" is optional. Recording details such as the quantity and model of weapons in a shipment is also optional.

We rate Stockman’s claim as False.



FALSE – The statement is not accurate.

Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.

Our Sources

U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, fundraising letter for National Association for Gun Rights, forwarded to PolitiFact on Aug. 19, 2013

U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, fundraising letter for National Association for Gun Rights, accessed online Aug. 27, 2013

United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs web page, "The Arms Trade Treaty," accessed Aug. 27, 2013

United Nations Arms Trade Treaty, accessed Aug. 27, 2013

Telephone interviews with Daniel Prins, chief, Conventional Arms branch of the U.N. Office for Disarmament Affairs, Aug. 23-27, 2013

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