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UN: Conference Targets Small-Arms Trafficking

  • Robert McMahon

A United Nations conference that begins on 9 July in New York aims to produce an action plan that would sharply reduce the proliferation of illicit small arms. But the final document stops short of a legal commitment, prompting civil society groups to question how effective the conference can be in controlling the trafficking of small arms and light weapons.

United Nations, 6 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Growing concern about the proliferation of small arms has brought about the UN's first conference aimed at controlling the largely unregulated flow of such weapons into combat zones.

Organizers of the conference -- set to run from 9-20 July -- say it will culminate with a program of action agreed upon by UN member states that outlines measures to control the trade in illicit small arms. Such measures include requiring manufacturers to ensure that small arms are marked and traceable, registering arms brokers to hold them accountable for shipments, and establishing proper export controls.

But the final document is not legally binding and the conference is not expected to focus on legal arms, many of which end up in the illicit market. This has sparked criticism from a number of non-governmental organizations involved in preparations for the conference. They have expressed doubts that it will lead to the controls necessary to keep small arms out of conflict zones, especially in Africa.

Steve Goose is program director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch. He tells RFE/RL the UN conference is an opportunity to put the international spotlight on small-arms trafficking, but that a program of action that is only politically binding is not enough.

"They don't want to have legally binding measures emerge from this, or even commitments to pursue legally binding measures. So it's going to be -- [it] looks like -- an exercise in political horse-trading of some sort."

In preparations for the conference, a number of UN members expressed concern about restrictions on their manufacturers' legitimate trade in small arms. Other states asserted their right to use such weapons to defend themselves, leading the conference to focus mainly on illicit trading in small arms.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters yesterday he would have preferred a stronger final document. But he called the conference a step in the right direction, noting the global treaty on banning land mines also took time to develop support.

"It is a recognition by the international community that we need to do something about these weapons. And I would not be surprised if on this issue, NGOs and civil rights activists rallied around it, as they did on the land-mine issue, because it's an issue that's of great importance to everybody in every community and everyone with a young child to protect."

UN officials say high-level officials from at least 50 countries will speak at the conference and 177 non-governmental organizations have so far been registered to participate.

The conference is considered an especially important guidepost for Eastern European nations, whose small arms have regularly turned up in war zones throughout Africa.

For example, in separate studies commissioned by the UN Security Council last year, it was found that arms from Eastern Europe -- in particular, from Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Romania -- ended up in the hands of rebel groups in Sierra Leone and Angola, which were under arms sanctions.

Security Council experts and independent arms control groups say that in many cases, a complex series of transactions takes place before the arms reach their final, illegal destination.

The illegal arms broker cited most frequently in Security Council reports is Victor Bout, a Tajik-born former pilot who reportedly went into private business throughout Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He lives in the United Arab Emirates and operates a network of more than 50 planes and numerous cargo charter companies, many of which have been linked to illegal arms shipments.

UN Undersecretary-General for Disarmament Affairs Jayantha Dhanapala told a news conference that next week's session will take up the issue of whether to require all arms brokers to be registered.

"The registration of brokers would diminish the likelihood of having the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. You will make the brokers, therefore, accountable -- and this accountability is a very important step in the direction of trying to control the illicit trade."

The complex activities of illegal arms brokers and the trafficking in Eastern European arms came to international attention with a Security Council report early last year which sought to "name and shame" countries violating an arms embargo in Angola. Bulgaria was cited as a main source of illegal arms and criticized for not taking effective steps to monitor arms flows out of the country. Bulgarian officials strongly denied the allegations, saying they had proper documentation for all arms transfers. Ukraine responded similarly when it was linked to arms transfers to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Eritrea.

But groups such as Human Rights Watch are hoping to keep the spotlight on these countries during the UN conference and beyond. Goose, of Human Rights Watch, says it is important that they demonstrate the political will to exercise responsible controls on arms.

"It does grow out of the political will to try to ensure that your weapons end up where they are supposed to end up and don't get retransferred over and over again, and that you have export regulations and monitoring mechanisms in place that will help to prevent the kind of abuse that you see."

Some regional frameworks have already been developed to try to control trafficking. Eight months ago, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe adopted guidelines that commit member states -- including Ukraine and Bulgaria -- to tighten controls over arms brokers operating on their territories and prohibit the transfer of unmarked small arms. The OSCE guidelines also require the publication of imports and exports of small arms and light weapons.

Another effort underway is being enforced by the UN Mission in Kosovo, or UNMIK. On 4 June, the mission put legislation into effect that imposes severe penalties for the possession of unauthorized weapons. UNMIK officials are hoping an information campaign and an amnesty program will help reduce the large numbers of small arms Kosovars possess illegally.

More than 5,300 weapons have been destroyed under a program managed by KFOR, but many more remain in circulation.