By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS, April 2 (Reuters) - The U.N. Arms Trade Treaty took a major step forward on its eventual entry into force on Wednesday as 18 countries, including five of the world's top 10 arms exporters, delivered proof of its ratification to the United Nations.
Exactly one year ago, the 193-member U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly approved the treaty, which aims to regulate the $85 billion arms industry and to keep weapons out of the hands of human rights abusers and criminals.
The treaty will enter into force once 50 countries have presented proof of ratification to the United Nations. With the latest 18 countries, there are now 31 ratifications out of 118 signatories, or 19 short of the number needed for the treaty to take effect.
The Arms Trade Treaty aims to set standards for all cross-border transfers of conventional weapons ranging from small firearms to tanks and attack helicopters. It would create binding requirements for states to review cross-border contracts to ensure that weapons will not be used in human rights abuses, terrorism, violations of humanitarian law or organized crime.
Anna Macdonald of the Control Arms Coalition, an international advocacy group that has long lobbied for the Arms Trade Treaty, painted a bleak picture of what she said was "an arms trade that is out of control."
"More than 520,000 people are killed every year by armed violence and millions more live in fear of rape, assault and displacement caused by weapons getting into the wrong hands," she said.
Most of the countries that presented proof of ratification on Wednesday were from Europe - Britain, Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Malta, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain. The sole non-European country among the 18 latest ratifiers was El Salvador.
"By globally regulating the international trade in arms, nations demonstrate their common responsibility to save lives, reduce human suffering and make the world a safer place for all," the 17 European states that delivered ratified copies of the treaty to the United Nations said in a joint statement.
"This treaty will fill a significant gap in international law and enhance accountability and responsibility in the international arms trade," they said.
Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain are five of the world's top arms-exporting states.
The statement added that other European Union member states will ratify the treaty soon, bringing it even closer to the required 50. Macdonald said it was possible the treaty would enter into force this summer and urged signatories of the treaty to make sure that happened.
"The 3rd of June, in two months time, will mark one year since the (treaty) opened for signature," she told a gathering of member states at U.N. headquarters. "What better time than to also be the point at which 50 ratifications are reached."
In a statement, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on all states that have not yet done so to sign and ratify the treaty without delay to ensure its swift entry into force.
The United States, the world's top arms exporter, signed the Arms Trade Treaty in September, but has not yet ratified it. The National Rifle Association, a powerful U.S. gun lobby, is opposed to ratification of the treaty, even though it only covers weapons exports, not domestic gun sales.
Other major arms exporters, like Russia and China, have not signed the treaty and it is unclear whether they will do so.
Arms control activists and rights groups say one person dies every minute as a result of armed violence and the treaty is needed to halt the uncontrolled flow of arms and ammunition that they say fuels wars, atrocities and rights abuses. (Reporting by Louis Charbonneau, editing by G Crosse)
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