Obama can sign UN arms treaty on Monday, but advocates worry he’ll stall

President Obama is hesitant to sign an international arms trade treaty opposed by the National Rifle Association, according to advocates for the pact.

Meetings with administration officials have them worried the White House doesn't want to expend any more political capital on a treaty the NRA insists is a gun grab by the United Nations.

“I'm pretty confident they're not going to sign” when the treaty first opens up for signatures on Monday, said Rachel Stohl, a senior associate with the Stimson Center think-tank, which supports the treaty.

She said she thinks Obama will still eventually sign the treaty, which his administration supports. But she said she “wouldn't be surprised” if he waited to sign “under the cover of darkness in August," echoing similar concerns expressed by Paul O'Brien, vice-president for policy and campaigns at Oxfam America.

“I think there's a lot of political hand-wringing going on” at the White House, Stohl said. “They know people are going to be paying attention to this particular issue on this particular day.”

More than half of the Senate is already on record opposing the treaty, largely because of lobbying by the NRA.

In private conversations with the administration, the advocates have argued that any potential political cost from the NRA's attacks was already incurred when the United States joined 155 other countries at the UN in voting for the treaty on April 2.

Now, they say, the president should proudly sign the treaty while the world is watching on Monday. They say getting the United States on board from the get-go would put pressure on major arms dealers like Russia and China to sign on and help the treaty enter into force sooner.

The administration has remained tight-lipped about its intentions with just hours to go before Monday.

“We were pleased with the outcome of the April 2 vote by the UN General Assembly to adopt the text of the ATT; we believe that text achieves the objectives we set out for the negotiation, and we were pleased to support the resolution to adopt it,” said Laura Lucas, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council. “We are conducting a thorough review of the treaty text to determine whether to sign the treaty.”

Advocates say a public signing by the White House is critically important because the chance to shape the treaty's future by being an early signer is a one-shot deal.

The treaty “gives the United States a mandate to lead an international discussion around regulation,” O'Brien said. “And so the profile that it chooses to take around the signature moment is profoundly important.

“Who's going to be there in the signing moment ? That sends a signal. What do they say in the signing moment to the other nations? That sends a signal. And when do they sign it? Do they sign it at a moment when the world is paying attention? Or do they wait until Congress isn't paying attention and the NRA is probably gone to bed for a couple of weeks?” he said.

Treaty advocates can count on their broad-based coalition uniting human-rights groups and religious institutions such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals to bring pressure to bear on the White House. And they've identified several key political pressure points.

Stohl said signing the treaty would be a net political win for the White House after the NRA and its allies in the Senate defeated arms control legislation prompted by the Newtown shooting.

O'Brien said stemming armed violence in places like sub-Saharan Africa would go a long way toward reaching the goal of eradicating extreme poverty around the world by 2030, as outlined in Obama's 2013 State of the Union address.

And Adotei Akwei, manager director of government relations for Amnesty International USA, said failing to sign the treaty will put him squarely at odds with African leaders during his trip to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania later this month.

“It couldn't happen fast enough,” he said. “And the frustration is when President Obama goes to sub-Saharan Africa at the end of this month, he's going to go without having signed a treaty that is impacting Africa more than any other region.”