UNITED NATIONS — More than 60 countries on Monday signed a landmark arms trade treaty, but the United States held back from joining the first wave of backers while Russia and China are not expected to sign on.
The UN-brokered treaty is the first covering weaponry of any kind for more than a decade and aims to bring transparency and protection of human rights into the often dubious $85 billion annual global conventional arms trade.
The treaty covers tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-caliber artillery, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and missile launchers, as well as the vast trade in small arms.
Countries that ratify the treaty would have to examine whether proposed deals risk breaching an international embargo, violate human rights laws, or allow terrorists or criminals to get hold of weapons.
The start of signing was described as an “extremely important milestone” by ministers and other representatives of Argentina, Australia, Britain, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan and Kenya, which sponsored the first 2006 UN resolution calling for treaty talks.
“It is vital that the treaty comes into force as soon as possible and is effectively implemented,” the seven said in a statement before Argentina became the first of 61 countries to sign the treaty on the first day.
Fifty signatories are needed for the treaty to come into force. Finland’s Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja said the necessary ratifications could be finished in just more than a year.
“It is only then that the international community will have an effective tool to address the unregulated and illicit conventional arms trade that causes unspeakable human suffering,” the statement by the seven added.
The UN General Assembly passed the treaty in April when 154 countries voted in favor, but Syria, North Korea and Iran voted against, and Russia, China, Egypt and India were among 23 countries to abstain.
Russia and China are not expected join the treaty any time soon.
Among major arms exporters, Britain, France and Germany all signed the treaty on the first day.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called the treaty a “historical breakthrough” but said more should be done to control the arms trade.
British deputy foreign minister Alistair Burt said doubters of the treaty were now under pressure to join.
“The force behind so many states wanting to conclude an arms trade treaty after so long meant something. The world is now different,” he told reporters.
The United States, the world’s biggest exporter of arms and ammunition, backed the treaty but was not among the first signatories.
“The United States welcomes the opening of the Arms Trade Treaty for signature, and we look forward to signing it as soon as the process of conforming the official translations is completed satisfactorily,” said US Secretary of State John Kerry in a statement.
Kerry said many of the controls in the treaty were already enforced in the United States.
But he said “the treaty is an important contribution to efforts to stem the illicit trade in conventional weapons, which fuels conflict, empowers violent extremists, and contributes to violations of human rights.”
The US administration has faced pressure from the domestic arms lobby over the treaty, but Kerry said the accord “will not undermine the legitimate international trade in conventional weapons, interfere with national sovereignty, or infringe on the rights of American citizens, including our Second Amendment rights,” which allow Americans to bear firearms.