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UN: U.S. Critical Of Small Arms Control

  • Robert McMahon

The United States has opened the UN's first conference on small arms trafficking by challenging the proposed agenda, saying it is impractical and too ambitious. A high U.S. arms control official urged delegates to focus on restricting such arms to regions of conflict and instability. That position ran counter to those of European Union states, which called for strenuous measures to make sure legal arms do not seep into the illegal market. RFE/RL UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports on the differences that emerged as the conference got under way.

United Nations, 10 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A senior U.S. security official has criticized the draft action plan of the United Nations conference on controlling illicit small arms. He said the agenda is too ambitious and warned that Washington will not support any effort that challenges the right of U.S. citizens to bear arms.

The U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, John Bolton, told the conference yesterday (9 July) that the focus of the action plan should be on restricting the flow of military arms to regions of conflict and instability. Bolton said the United States does not support measures that could constrain the legal trade and manufacture of arms or any prohibitions on civilian possession of small arms. He asked that any references to these measures be removed from the text of the UN's draft action plan on controlling arms trafficking.

"Each member state of the United Nations has the right to manufacture and export arms for purposes of national defense. Diversions of the legal arms trade that become 'illicit' are best dealt with through effective export controls. To label all manufacturing and trade as 'part of the problem' is inaccurate and counterproductive.

The U.S. opposition to controls on the legal small arms trade is shared by Russia, China, and some other major producers of such weapons. But it contrasts sharply with the positions taken on the first day of the conference by a majority of countries, especially European Union states, which also are major arms manufacturers.

The foreign minister of the Netherlands, Jozias van Aartsen, told delegates that his government backs greater transparency in the legal arms trade through more thorough labeling and registration of weapons. Van Aartsen said the UN action plan needs to recognize the relationship between licit and illicit arms flows.

"The illicit trade cannot be tackled without involving the legal arms trade. We must further regulate the legal trade in arms, small weapons included, in order to prevent 'spillover' into the illegal arms trade."

The UN action program is not legally binding, but member states had agreed in preparatory meetings that it would contain a strong political commitment to tackling a problem considered a threat to global security. Unlike chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, there are no international conventions regulating small arms.

The Netherlands' Van Aartsen and Belgium's Foreign Minister Louis Michel -- speaking on behalf of the EU -- said the measures agreed to at the UN conference should be a first step toward a legally binding document on small arms. They joined other European ministers in expressing support for holding conferences every two years to review progress in the action program.

But Bolton, speaking shortly afterward, said the United States would not support a mandatory review conference. He said this would bureaucratize the effort at curbing small arms trafficking. He also said the United States was not willing to commit to begin negotiations on a legally binding document at this time.

Instead, Bolton said, U.S. officials were eager to work with other nations to improve their monitoring of arms transfers and toughen export controls. Arms experts regard the U.S. system for monitoring small arms sales as one of the world's toughest.

Bolton says these controls have proven effective, with thousands of illicit arms shipments intercepted at U.S. ports of exit during the past five years. He says the United States has also cut off exports entirely to five countries that failed to properly manage defense items originating in the United States.

"All commercial exporters of arms in the United States must be registered as brokers and submit each transaction for government licensing approval. Our brokering law is comprehensive, extending over citizens and foreign nationals in the United States, and also U.S. citizens operating abroad."

But there is widespread concern among UN delegates and non-governmental organizations about the leakage of legitimate arms into the illegal market. In the changing post-Cold War world from 1990 to present, the majority of conflicts have been internal and the United Nations says 46 of the 49 wars have been fought with small arms, a number of them originally legitimate.

Civil war-torn Afghanistan, for example, is believed to have the largest number of illicit small arms -- 10 million by UN estimates. Afghanistan's neighbors have been coping with the instability created by the country's numerous wars and are especially concerned about the proliferation of weapons into their own countries.

Iran's foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, told the UN conference yesterday that the availability of small arms in Afghanistan has helped fuel the often violent heroin trade into Iran and other Central Asian states. Kharrazi expressed the hope that the action program would reflect this link.

Kharrazi also cited gun trafficking in the Caucasus region as a problem and called for regional cooperation to help end the trafficking in drugs and guns.

"We expect relevant decisions to be adopted by the conference to contribute to the affected countries in their struggle against terrorism, insurgencies, and drug trafficking and to prevent the use of these weapons for such operations. "

Kharrazi joined a number of EU countries in calling for restricting the sale of small arms to governments or state agencies. But Bolton, the U.S. official, said distinctions between governmental and non-governmental actors would not necessarily determine responsible end-users of weapons. He said the United States does not support limiting trade in small arms to governments because such a measure would preclude assistance to any oppressed non-state group defending itself from what he called a "genocidal" government.

The first day of the UN conference coincided with an effort by the government of the Netherlands to rally support for collecting and destroying illegal small arms as well as arms surpluses. An event at UN headquarters in New York yesterday featured comments by Zlata Filipovic, whose experiences as a young girl in Sarajevo in the early 1990s led to the publication of her internationally known book, "Zlata's Diary."

Now a young woman, Filipovic applauded the efforts under way to start destroying small arms around the world. She recalled the many abuses she was witness to in which soldiers in Bosnia abused the rights of others because they possessed arms.

"After seeing so many homes, schools, hospitals, so many people go up in flames, I'm happy to see the instruments of this destruction be burned and go up in flames, too."

The UN's conference on illicit small arms continues through 20 July, with delegates from more than 120 countries as well as non-governmental organizations scheduled to speak. Government representatives will continue to try to reach a consensus on a program of action.

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