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UN: Officials Trying To Address Small Arms Problem

  • Robert McMahon

Momentum is building at the United Nations for taking collective action to combat the illegal trade in small arms and light weapons. But there is widespread recognition that the problem is more challenging than any arms control initiative ever attempted by the United Nations. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports on the small arms scourge and attempts to fight it.

United Nations, 18 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- UN arms control experts say the world is awash in weapons, and that the smallest arms have been the most lethal during the past 10 years.

Hundreds of millions of small arms now exist in the world. Many of these started out as legal purchases but ended up being transferred illegally to scores of conflict zones that sprang up in the 1990s. The changing nature of conflicts during this time, from international to internal ethnic-based struggles, has raised the role and influence of small arms, be they hand guns, grenades or assault weapons.

From the Balkans to Afghanistan to East Timor and throughout Africa, illegal small arms have fueled conflicts that have killed millions and forced millions more from their homes.

Their impact goes beyond warring parties. Humanitarian agencies say the security hazard for civilian populations and relief workers alike has worsened as a result of the proliferation of small arms. They say the availability of small arms has also fed a growing problem -- the use of children as soldiers.

While worldwide controls are in place for nuclear and chemical weapons and major weapons systems, efforts to control small arms and light weapons have been uneven and ineffective.

The latest session of the UN General Assembly, which concludes this week, reflected widespread acknowledgment that some sort of system of global controls for small arms is needed.

Many UN members and arms control advocates are looking for some practical measures to emerge from a UN conference next July on curbing trade in illegal weapons.

But the issues that have so far frustrated efforts to control small arms are not expected to emerge at this conference.

For one, making small arms is big business for a number of industrialized nations. Secondly, many developing nations rely on small arms and light weapons as their main form of self-defense.

Jeffrey Laurenti, a senior analyst for the United Nations Association of the United States, says that this is why the UN conference will focus on the illegal aspects of the trade, rather than the trade in general:

"This is not an effort to restrict the sale of weapons into developing countries. It is only how to tighten the screws against their illicit sale -- what's already viewed as illegal. That's a distinction that the developing countries insisted on."

Any effort at controlling the illegal trade in small arms could find parallels in the movement to ban landmines, which resulted in an international treaty signed three years ago this month.

Public relations played a role in raising awareness about land mines. Supporters of controls on small arms hope next year's UN conference can draw proper attention about their destructiveness.

A representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Sylvie Junod urged a UN General Assembly committee this autumn to make the humanitarian effect of small arms part of the conference's agenda. "As international arms transfers, particularly of small arms and light weapons, have become easier, promoting respect for humanitarian law has become vastly more difficult. " A representative of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Ado Vaher, told the same committee that small arms and light weapons have killed more than three million people since 1990. He says 750,000 of those victims have been children.

But Vaher said the proliferation of such weapons has given rise to a trend in children being pressed into military service. This is most prevalent in Africa in countries like Sierra Leone, where gangs of teenage boys armed with automatic weapons are a common sight. Says Vaher:

"The link between small arms and child soldiering is direct and obvious. The fact that modern small arms are widespread, cheap, very lightweight and easy to handle, encourages the involvement of children in conflict."

A Red Cross report two years ago said arms sales to developing states were spurred in the 1990s by the shrinking military budgets of northern industrialized countries at the end of the Cold War. With a general lack of policy for converting military production plants to other means, many countries ended up competing in an intense new rivalry for markets, primarily in the developing world.

Former Soviet states like Ukraine and Kazakhstan and Warsaw Pact countries like Bulgaria have been active in trading with the developing world. But all three have endured international criticism recently for permitting weapons to reach rebels or rogue nations.

Separate UN reports this year on violators of sanctions against rebels in Angola and Sierra Leone mentioned Bulgaria and Ukraine as countries of origin for large air shipments of arms that eventually reached rebel groups. Some UN authorities now say Bulgaria and Ukraine appear to have taken steps to tighten controls over businesses selling arms.

Kazakhstan was criticized last year after an undisclosed number of warplanes were sold to North Korea. Based on that disclosure and a separate arms-sale scandal, Kazakhstan in June said it was setting up a special government body to control the sale of weapons abroad.

But experts say the complexity of modern-day arms trading makes it difficult to track shipments. For example, experts say, an average deal in which illicit diamonds from Africa are used to purchase arms can involve more than 30 different parties.

Natalie Goldring works for the Program on General Disarmament at the University of Maryland. She told a UN symposium on small arms in October that most illicit weapons start out as legal weapons. It will not be possible to control the illicit trade, she says, without controlling the legal trade as well.

"You have to track domestic production and trade, otherwise you don't know what illicit is."

Another means of control is collecting and destroying small arms in post-conflict zones.

The Red Cross report from 1998 said theft of weapons from military and police warehouses is a major problem in countries beset with international violence.

In Albania in the spring of 1997, the Red Cross says about 750,000 weapons were looted by insurgents and civilians as civil unrest swept the country. Many of these weapons were reportedly smuggled across the border into Kosovo.

The United Nations two years ago began a program in one Albanian region aimed at collecting and destroying small arms. In return for arms, the region received development assistance. The program reported some immediate success. For Goldring of the University of Maryland, such programs need to become standardized to ensure that arms are removed from unstable regions.

"Destruction [of the weapons] is absolutely key to breaking the cycle of violence. If surplus weapons and weapons that remain when conflicts end are destroyed they can't be used again. These weapons last for decades. They could be recycled a dozen times during that time if destruction does not occur."

The UN conference next summer will likely aim for consensus on introducing measures for greater transparency and accountability in the arms trade. These could include a legally binding instrument on restraining international arms trade, involving end-user verification documents. The conference will also encourage regional agreements on the marking and trading of weapons.

There will also likely be a general pledge to strengthen efforts at conflict prevention, thereby reducing the demand for small arms.

Whatever the outcome, arms control advocates say governments need to demonstrate that they are more willing to pay closer attention to the trade in small arms. The greatest leadership on this issue can come from the five permanent members of the Security Council -- the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France -- which together account for an enormous quantity of arms sold on the international market.