By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Secretary of State John Kerry voiced support on Friday for an international treaty to regulate the $70 billion global arms trade, but restated Washington's "red line," affirming that it would not accept limits on U.S. domestic gun ownership.
The U.N. General Assembly voted in December to hold a final round of negotiations from March 18 to 28 on what could become the first international treaty to regulate international weapons transfers after a drafting conference in July 2012 collapsed because the United States and others wanted more time.
Arms control campaigners say one person every minute dies worldwide as a result of armed violence and that a convention is needed to prevent the unregulated and illicit flow of weapons into conflict zones fueling wars and atrocities.
"The United States is 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," Kerry said in a statement.
"An effective treaty that recognizes that each nation must tailor and enforce its own national export and import control mechanisms can generate the participation of a broad majority of states, help stem the illicit flow of conventional arms across international borders and have important humanitarian benefits."
But he repeated that the United States - the world's No. 1 arms manufacturer - would not accept any treaty that imposed new limits on U.S. citizens' right to bear arms, a sensitive political issue in the United States.
"We will not support any treaty that would be inconsistent with U.S. law and the rights of American citizens under our Constitution, including the Second Amendment," he said.
"International conventional arms trade is, and will continue to be, a legitimate commercial activity," he said, adding that countries should work to prevent arms from reaching those who commit "the world's worst crimes, including those involving terrorism and serious human rights violations."
The point of the treaty is to set standards for all cross-border transfers of any type of conventional weapon - light and heavy. It would also set binding requirements for nations to review all cross-border arms contracts to ensure the munitions are not used in human rights abuses, do not violate embargoes and are not illegally diverted.
DISPUTE OVER AMMUNITION
The leading U.S. pro-gun group, the National Rifle Association, has vowed to fight the treaty, dismissing suggestions that a December U.S. school shooting massacre in Connecticut bolstered the case for such a pact.
If a treaty is approved, it will require ratification by countries' legislatures before it goes into effect. The NRA has warned the arms trade treaty would undermine the right to bear arms and says it will fight hard to prevent ratification if the Obama administration supports the treaty.
Backers of the treaty accuse the NRA of deceiving the U.S. public about the pact, which they say will have no impact on domestic gun ownership and would apply only to exports.
Some 150 countries will participate in the negotiations that begin on Monday at U.N. headquarters.
Human rights groups and other advocates of the treaty welcomed Kerry's statement.
"While the U.S. government reaffirms its red line on the Second Amendment, it did not issue any new red lines or demands on the international community," said Frank Jannuzi of Amnesty International. "We hope that this means that they will lead the next round (of negotiations) to consensus."
Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association, said Kerry's remarks were a "long overdue positive statement that makes it clear the administration is dedicated to pursuing a robust treaty."
He added that it was positive Kerry did not raise the issue of ammunition, something the United States had previously demanded be excluded from the treaty. Supporters of a tough treaty in Europe and elsewhere insist on including it.
Last month, U.S. National Security Council deputy spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said Washington would continue to oppose the inclusion of ammunition in the draft treaty.
"Ammunition is a fundamentally different commodity than conventional arms," Hayden said. "It is fungible, consumable, reloadable, and cannot be marked in any practical way that would permit it to be tracked or traced."
A U.S. official told Reuters on Friday that Washington's position against including ammunition had not changed.
(Editing by Todd Eastham and Peter Cooney)