The United Nations General Assembly resolution passed on Wednesday to regulate the global arms trade was long overdue, coming after 20 years of study and negotiations. But although it was definitely a step in the right direction, at this point the effects look to be mostly symbolic, a gesture of overwhelming global sentiment that regulation is needed.
The General Assembly vote was 154 nations for, three against and 23 abstentions. Loud cheers swept the floor as the final vote was posted. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the passage of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) "a victory for the world's people" and a "powerful new tool in our efforts to prevent grave human rights abuses or violations of international humanitarian law".
But in reality, even compared with other UN actions not backed by the Security Council, this treaty has no "teeth". It is a voluntary regime with no organisation authorised to enforce regulations or to assess penalties, and no true regulations.
Basically, as Alexander Zaitchik writes for alternet.org, the treaty "simply asks states to exercise judgement and restraint, according to self-proscribed criteria, in the transfer and export of conventional arms and ammunition to parties involved in 'genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, attacks directed against civilian objects' or other war crimes".
In the article Zaitchik quotes a member of the Liberian delegation as saying many member states wanted "a much tighter treaty".
"Those of us who live in countries devastated by civil war very clearly understand the need for a strong regulatory framework to deter non-state actors from getting weapons. This is why we wanted a mechanism for risk-assessment, and why we wanted penalties," said the delegate.
Another fault of the treaty is that it fails to address arms trading that isn't directly sanctioned by a state government but rather carried out by "middlemen", as Russian Victor Bout is alleged to be.
But even with such non-binding terms it is clear that some of the major players in the global arms trade - including the United States, Russia and North Korea on the supply side and Syria on the demand side - will not ratify the treaty any time soon.
At the direction of President Barack Obama, the US did vote in favour of the resolution and, according to Australian ambassador Peter Woolcott, "played a hugely constructive role" in its passage. But Mr Obama knows that this was mostly a symbolic gesture. Ratifying the treaty will take a two-thirds majority in the Senate, and as long as the powerful US lobbying group the National Rifle Association (NRA) continues to hold sway over many office holders ratification has about as much chance as meaningful domestic gun control regulations. At first glance the NRA's stance on regulation of international arms sales is hard to fathom. It may be due in part to pressure from donors in the armaments industry, but mostly it seems to stem from right-wing opposition to anything the UN does and paranoia that agents from the international organisation will come knocking on citizens' doors to take their guns away.
On a higher level, one of the major reasons for opposition by supplier nations to strict regulation, in addition to loss of profits, is that it would limit these governments' ability to influence other governments and the outcomes of their internal conflicts.
This would be no bad thing, as history shows that such attempts often end in calamity.
In a speech in April 1953, US president Dwight D Eisenhower famously said: "The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."
Sadly, a world unarmed is a utopian fantasy for now, and even the strictest of regulations on arms trade wouldn't change that. On the other hand, we can at least do much more to keep the weapons of war out of the hands of despots and known human rights abusers. The ATT represents a small but important step along the way.