UNITED NATIONS -- The U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly approved the first U.N. treaty regulating the multibillion-dollar international arms trade, a goal sought for more than a decade to try to keep illicit weapons out of the hands of terrorists, insurgent fighters and organized crime.
The resolution adopting the landmark treaty was approved by a vote of 154 to 3 with 23 abstentions. As the numbers appeared on the electronic board, loud cheers filled the assembly chamber.
"This is an historic day and a major achievement for the United Nations," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said. "The world wanted this treaty and would not be thwarted by the few who sought to prevent the introduction of robust, effective and legally binding controls on the international trade in weapons."
What impact the treaty will have in reining in the estimated $60 billion global arms trade, however, remains to be seen.
The treaty will take effect soon after 50 countries ratify it -- and a lot will depend on which countries ratify and which don't, and how stringently it is implemented.
Britain and a small group of treaty supporters sought a vote in the 193-member world body after Iran, North Korea and Syria blocked its adoption by consensus at a negotiating conference last Thursday. The three countries voted "no" on Tuesday's resolution while Russia and China, both major arms exporters, abstained.
Many countries, including the United States, which voted for the treaty, control arms exports. But there has never been an international treaty regulating the global arms trade.
Australian Ambassador Peter Woolcott, who chaired the negotiations, said the treaty will "make an important difference by reducing human suffering and saving lives."
"We owe it to those millions -- often the most vulnerable in society -- whose lives have been overshadowed by the irresponsible and illicit international trade in arms," he told the assembly just before the vote.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed the approval of "a strong, effective and implementable Arms Trade Treaty that can strengthen global security while protecting the sovereign right of states to conduct legitimate arms trade." He stressed that the treaty only applies to international trade "and reaffirms the sovereign right of any state to regulate arms within its territory."
But the three treaty opponents and many countries that abstained complained that the treaty has too many loopholes and can be easily "politicized." Their key arguments include that the treaty favors exporters like the United States over importers who need arms for self-defense and doesn't include a provision banning sales to armed groups.
The treaty will not control the domestic use of weapons in any country, but it will require countries that ratify it to establish national regulations to control the transfer of conventional arms, parts and components and to regulate arms brokers.