By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The 193-nation U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly approved on Tuesday the first-ever treaty on global arms trade that seeks to regulate the $70 billion (46.3 billion pounds) international business in conventional arms ranging from light weapons to battle tanks and warships.
There were 154 votes in favour, 3 against and 23 abstentions.
Iran, Syria and North Korea last week prevented a treaty-drafting conference at U.N. headquarters from reaching the required consensus to adopt the treaty. That left delegations that support it no choice but to turn to a General Assembly vote to adopt it.
The Iranian, Syrian and North Korean delegations cast the sole votes against the treaty on Tuesday.
Iran, which is under a U.N. arms embargo over its nuclear program, is eager to ensure its arms imports and exports are not curtailed, diplomats said. Syria's government is embroiled in a two-year civil war and relies on Russian and Iranian weapons, they added.
North Korea is also under a U.N. arms embargo due to its nuclear weapons and missile programs.
The treaty will be open for signature on June 3 and will enter into force 90 days after the 50th signatory ratifies it.
Major arms producers China and Russia joined Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and other countries in abstaining. A number of countries, led by India, which also abstained, complained the treaty favoured exporting over importing states.
The United States, the world's No. 1 arms exporter, voted in favour of the treaty despite fierce opposition from the National Rifle Association, a powerful U.S. pro-gun lobbying group.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement that the U.N. adopted "a strong, effective and implementable Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) that can strengthen global security while protecting the sovereign right of states to conduct legitimate arms trade."
"Nothing in this treaty could ever infringe on the rights of American citizens under our domestic law or the Constitution, including the Second Amendment," he added, referring to the U.S. constitutional amendment that guarantees the right to bear arms.
The NRA opposes the treaty and has vowed to fight to prevent its ratification by the U.S. Senate when it reaches Washington. The NRA says the treaty will undermine domestic gun rights, a view the U.S. government has strongly rejected.
Syrian U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari repeated that his government opposes the arms trade treaty because it does not ban the sale of weapons to non-state actors and "terrorists" like those allegedly active in Syria. The civil war there has claimed at least 70,000 lives, according to U.N. estimates.
Syria routinely refers to rebels trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad as "terrorists" backed by foreign governments.
The treaty does not ban transfers to armed groups but says all arms transfers should be subjected to rigorous risk and human rights assessments first.
British Prime Minister David Cameron hailed the vote as a "landmark agreement that will save lives and ease the immense human suffering caused by armed conflict around the world."
Mexico issued a statement on behalf of 98 U.N. member states saying "an effective implementation of this treaty will make a real difference for the people of the world."
U.N. member states began meeting on March 18 in a final push to end years of discussions and hammer out a binding international treaty to end the lack of regulation over cross-border conventional arms sales.
Arms control activists and rights groups have said a treaty was needed to halt the uncontrolled flow of arms and ammunition that they say fuels wars, atrocities and rights abuses.
The ATT aims to set standards for all cross-border transfers of conventional weapons. It also would create binding requirements for states to review all cross-border arms contracts to ensure that arms will not be used in human rights abuses, terrorism or violations of humanitarian law.
"The agreement of the Arms Trade Treaty sends a clear message to arms dealers who supply warlords and dictators that their time is up," said Anna Macdonald of the global development group Oxfam. "They will no longer be able to operate and arm themselves with impunity."
Amnesty International's Frank Jannuzi said the NRA, which claimed credit last year for persuading the United States to block the treaty in July 2012, had failed this time.
"Iran, Syria and North Korea blocked consensus at the U.N., while the NRA cynically - and ultimately unsuccessfully - tried to erode the U.S. government's support through a campaign of lies about the treaty," Jannuzi said.
The main reason the arms trade talks took place at all is that the United States - the world's biggest arms trader - reversed U.S. policy on the issue after President Barack Obama was first elected and decided in 2009 to support a treaty.
(Reporting By Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Philip Barbara and Paul Simao)