By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Human rights groups on Monday sharply criticized the latest draft of what could become the first international treaty to regulate the $70 billion global conventional arms trade, accusing the United States and others of pushing to dilute it.
Several Western delegations, however, played down the complaints of groups like Oxfam, Amnesty International, the World Council of Churches and Control Arms, saying the latest draft showed progress, though improvements were clearly needed.
United Nations member states began meeting last week in a final push to hammer out a binding international treaty to end the lack of regulation over conventional arms sales. On Friday, Peter Woolcott of Australia, president of the drafting conference, distributed a revised draft treaty.
One of changes was in the list of arms the treaty covers.
The previous draft treaty said that the following weapon types would be covered by the pact "at a minimum" - tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and missile launchers and small arms and light arms.
But in the new draft, the words "at a minimum" have been removed, which rights groups said has dramatically narrowed the scope of the weapons to be covered by the treaty.
"This treaty is not good enough," said Anna Macdonald of Oxfam. "This is not the treaty that is going to save lives and protect people."
Jonathan Frerichs of the World Council of Churches told reporters predator drones and hand grenades are examples of deadly arms that should be explicitly covered but are not.
Arms control campaigners and human rights advocates say one person dies every minute worldwide as a result of armed violence, and that a treaty is needed to halt the uncontrolled flow of weapons and ammunition that they argue helps fuel wars, atrocities and rights abuses.
They say conflicts in Syria, Mali, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ivory Coast and elsewhere highlight the need to keep arms from going to governments that use them for atrocities.
NRA APPLAUDS SENATE MEASURE
Several Western diplomats said that the rights groups were ignoring improvements and exaggerating shortcomings of the new draft, noting a new draft comes out on Wednesday ahead of the final day of negotiations on Thursday.
If the pact does not get the required unanimous approval of member states, it would go to a vote in the 193-nation General Assembly, where diplomats say it is very likely to pass.
The point of an arms trade treaty is to set standards for all cross-border transfers of conventional weapons. It would also create binding requirements for states to review all cross-border arms contracts to ensure arms will not be used in human rights abuses, terrorism or violations of humanitarian law.
In addition to the narrowing of the scope of weapons covered, rights groups and supporters of a tough treaty said ammunition is not properly covered, and loopholes that exclude defense cooperation agreements, loans and leases remain in the draft.
Oxfam's Macdonald suggested it was the United States, the world's top arms producer, that had pushed for a narrowing of the scope of the weapons covered in the treaty. The U.S. mission did not have an immediate reaction, but several diplomats also blamed it on the United States and other major arms exporting nations.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry voiced conditional support for the treaty last week, saying Washington was "steadfast in its commitment to achieve a strong and effective Arms Trade Treaty that helps address the adverse effects of the international arms trade on global peace and stability."
But he did not promise U.S. support. He repeated that the United States would not accept a treaty that imposed new limits on U.S. citizens' right to bear arms, a sensitive political issue in the United States.
Over the weekend, the National Rifle Association, a powerful U.S. pro-gun lobby, welcomed a measure adopted by the U.S. Senate on Saturday that called on the United States not to join the U.N. arms trade treaty. The NRA has vowed to fight hard to prevent ratification of the treaty if it reaches Washington.
The measure, which was put forward by Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, passed on a 53-46 vote. Several U.N. diplomats in New York said this was a sign of the difficulties the United States would have securing Senate approval of a pact.
"Thanks to the efforts of Senator Inhofe, we are one step closer to ensuring the U.N. will not trample on the freedoms our Founding Fathers guaranteed to us," said Chris Cox, executive director of NRA's Institute for Legislative Action.
The American Bar Association, an attorneys' lobbying group, last month disputed the NRA position on the treaty, saying in a paper that "ratification of the treaty would not infringe upon rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment."
The main reason the arms trade talks are taking place at all is that the United States - the world's biggest arms trader - reversed U.S. policy on the issue after President Barack Obama was first elected and decided in 2009 to support an arms treaty.
(This story corrects spelling of ambassador's name in third paragraph)
(Reporting By Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)