By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Negotiators on Friday narrowly averted the collapse of talks on a world arms trade treaty to regulate the $55 billion global weapons market, agreeing on ground rules for negotiations after days of procedural wrangling.
Delegates and advocates for tougher oversight of global arms sales said the agreement set the stage for a monthlong conference in July to draft the treaty.
Arms control campaigners say one person every minute dies as a result of armed violence and that a convention is needed to prevent illicitly traded guns from pouring into conflict zones and fueling wars and atrocities.
Earlier on Friday, arms control activists and diplomats said the talks were nearly derailed by disputes over procedure - above all whether participants can effectively veto an agreement in July - although those issues were eventually resolved.
There are also divisions over whether human rights should be a mandatory criterion for determining whether governments should permit weapons exports to specific countries.
Brian Wood of Amnesty International said Russia, China and several other arms-exporting nations were "resisting proposals from the overwhelming majority for criteria in the treaty that would stop arms transfers" when there was reason to believe they could be used for serious human rights violations.
He said Washington also had misgivings and was concerned that human rights criteria would discourage states like Syria, a major purchaser of Russian arms, from joining the treaty.
One diplomat described Syria's 11-month crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations, which has led to the death of over 5,400 people according to U.N. figures, and other Arab Spring uprisings as "the elephant in the room" as delegates ponder ways of halting arms sales to governments that kill their citizens.
"It was in everyone's minds as we discussed the need for the treaty," a senior Western diplomat told Reuters.
U.S. INSISTS ON VETO
There was a long debate about whether decisions at the July drafting conference in New York need to be made unanimously, which would give every country a veto.
The United States, Russia, China, Syria, Iran and others pushing for unanimity have argued that the only way to ensure universal compliance is to get all countries on board. Those who dislike the virtual veto, like Mexico and some European countries, believe it could mean that whatever treaty is agreed on in July - if there is one - will be weak.
"As we have seen in the case of Syria, veto power leads to inaction and hampers the ability of the international community to prevent conflict," said Jeff Abramson of the group Control Arms. He was referring to Russia's and China's veto of two U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Syria's crackdown.
In the end, participants at this week's discussions at U.N. headquarters agreed that decisions at the drafting conference in July would be taken by consensus. A senior U.S. official described the veto as "the nuclear option" - a last resort.
The U.S. official, a leading member of Washington's delegation, told Reuters the ability to "block a weak treaty" while protecting U.S. domestic rights to bear arms - a politically sensitive issue in the United States - was agreed on in 2009 and remained a condition for U.S. participation.
Diplomats involved in the talks said bickering between the United States and Mexico over procedure belied a concrete subtext - Mexico's complaints that lax U.S. gun laws enable Mexican drug cartels to obtain weapons easily in the United States and move them across the U.S.-Mexican border.
One issue on which the U.S. and Mexican delegations disagree relates to tracking weapons and ammunition. Mexico would like a treaty to require national authorities to track and keep records of arms and ammunition from their manufacture to final use.
The senior U.S. official said such monitoring would not be permissible under U.S. law.
There are other areas of disagreement, delegates said. Washington does not want the treaty to cover ammunition, while China and Egypt are among those that want to exclude small arms.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)