By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly on Monday to restart negotiations on a draft international treaty to regulate the $70 billion global trade in conventional arms, a pact the powerful U.S. National Rifle Association has been lobbying hard against.
U.N. delegates and gun control activists have complained that talks collapsed in July largely because U.S. President Barack Obama feared attacks from Republican rival Mitt Romney before the November 6 election if his administration was seen as supporting the pact, a charge U.S. officials have denied.
The NRA, which has come under intense criticism for its reaction to the December 15 shooting massacre of 20 children and six educators at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, opposes the idea of an arms trade treaty and has pressured Obama to reject it.
But after Obama's re-election last month, his administration joined other members of a U.N. committee in supporting the resumption of negotiations on the treaty.
That move was set in stone on Monday when the 193-nation U.N. General Assembly voted to hold a final round of negotiations on March 18-28 in New York.
The foreign ministers of Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan, Kenya and the United Kingdom - the countries that drafted the resolution - issued a joint statement welcoming the decision to resume negotiations on the pact.
"This was a clear sign that the vast majority of U.N. member states support a strong, balanced and effective treaty, which would set the highest possible common global standards for the international transfer of conventional arms," they said.
There were 133 votes in favor, none against and 17 abstentions. A number of countries did not attend, which U.N. diplomats said was due to the Christmas Eve holiday.
The exact voting record was not immediately available, though diplomats said the United States voted 'yes,' as it did in the U.N. disarmament committee last month. Countries that abstained from last month's vote included Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Sudan, Belarus, Cuba and Iran.
Among the top six arms-exporting nations, Russia cast the only abstention in last month's vote. Britain, France and Germany joined China and the United States in the disarmament committee in support of the same resolution approved by the General Assembly on Monday.
NRA THREATENS "GREATEST FORCE OF OPPOSITION"
The main reason the arms trade talks are taking place at all is that the United States - the world's biggest arms trader, which accounts for more than 40 percent of global transfers in conventional arms - reversed U.S. policy on the issue after Obama was first elected and decided in 2009 to support a treaty.
Obama administration officials have tried to explain to U.S. opponents of the arms trade pact that the treaty under discussion would have no effect on gun sales and ownership inside the United States because it would apply only to exports.
But NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre told U.N. delegations in July that his group opposed the pact and there are no indications that
it has changed that position.
"Any treaty that includes civilian firearms ownership in its scope will be met with the NRA's greatest force of opposition," LaPierre said, according to the website of the NRA's lobbying wing, the Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA).
LaPierre's speech to the U.N. delegations in July was later supported by letters from a majority of U.S. senators and 130 congressional representatives, who told Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that they opposed the treaty, according to the NRA-ILA.
It is not clear whether the NRA would have the same level of support from U.S. legislators after the Newtown massacre.
U.S. officials say they want a treaty that contributes to international security by fighting illicit arms trafficking and proliferation but protects the sovereign right of states to conduct legitimate arms trade.
"We will not accept any treaty that infringes on the constitutional rights of our citizens to bear arms," a U.S. official told Reuters last month.
The United States, like all other U.N. member states, can effectively veto the treaty since the negotiations will be conducted on the basis of consensus. That means the treaty must receive unanimous support in order to be approved in March.
Arms control activists say it is far from clear that the Obama administration truly wants a strong treaty. Any treaty agreed in March would also need to be ratified by the parliaments of individual signatory nations before it could come into force.
(Reporting By Louis Charbonneau; editing by Christopher Wilson)