By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Hours after U.S. President Barack Obama was re-elected, the United States backed a U.N. committee's call on Wednesday to renew debate over a draft international treaty to regulate the $70 billion global conventional arms trade.
U.N. delegates and gun control activists have complained that talks collapsed in July largely because Obama feared attacks from Republican rival Mitt Romney if his administration was seen as supporting the pact, a charge Washington denies.
The month-long talks at U.N. headquarters broke off after the United States - along with Russia and other major arms producers - said it had problems with the draft treaty and asked for more time.
But the U.N. General Assembly's disarmament committee moved quickly after Obama's win to approve a resolution calling for a new round of talks March 18-28. It passed with 157 votes in favor, none against and 18 abstentions.
U.N. diplomats said the vote had been expected before Tuesday's U.S. presidential election but was delayed due to Superstorm Sandy, which caused a three-day closure of the United Nations last week.
An official at the U.S. mission said Washington's objectives have not changed.
"We seek a treaty that contributes to international security by fighting illicit arms trafficking and proliferation, protects the sovereign right of states to conduct legitimate arms trade, and meets the concerns that we have been articulating throughout," the official said.
"We will not accept any treaty that infringes on the constitutional rights of our citizens to bear arms," he said.
U.S. officials have acknowledged privately that the treaty under discussion would have no effect on domestic gun sales and ownership because it would apply only to exports.
The main reason the arms trade talks are taking place at all is that the United States - the world's biggest arms trader accounting for more than 40 percent of global conventional arms transfers - reversed U.S. policy on the issue after Obama was first elected and decided in 2009 to support a treaty.
'MONTHS AWAY' FROM DEAL?
Countries that abstained included Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Sudan, Belarus, Cuba and Iran. China, a major arms producer that has traditionally abstained, voted in favor.
Among the top six arms-exporting nations, Russia cast the only abstention. Britain, France and Germany joined China and the United States in support of the resolution.
The measure now goes to the 193-nation General Assembly for a formal vote. It is expected to pass.
The resolution said countries are "determined to build on the progress made to date towards the adoption of a strong, balanced and effective Arms Trade Treaty."
Jeff Abramson, director of Control Arms, a coalition of advocacy groups, urged states to agree on stringent provisions.
"In Syria, we have seen the death toll rise well over 30,000, with weapons and ammunition pouring in the country for months now," he said. "We need a treaty that will set tough rules to control the arms trade, that will save lives and truly make the world a better place."
Brian Wood of Amnesty International said: "After today's resounding vote, if the larger arms trading countries show real political will in the negotiations, we're only months away from securing a new global deal that has the potential to stop weapons reaching those who seriously abuse human rights."
The treaty would require states to make respecting human rights a criterion for allowing arms exports.
Britain's U.N. mission said on its Twitter feed it hoped that the March negotiations would yield the final text of a treaty. Such a pact would then need to be ratified by the individual signatories before it could enter into force.
The National Rifle Association, the powerful U.S. interest group, strongly opposes the arms treaty and had endorsed Romney.
The United States has denied it sought to delay negotiations for political reasons, saying it had genuine problems with the draft as written.
(Editing by Xavier Briand)