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UN: NGOs Urge Conference To Consider Full Impact Of Arms Trade

  • Nikola Krastev

The first day of the United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons underscored the sharp divide between the event's official agenda and the approach of civil society groups, which are seeking a comprehensive approach to the illegal arms trade. The conference's program focuses on security issues in small arms and light weapons traffic, but some non-governmental organizations are calling it inadequate for failing to include important issues like the relation of the small arms trade to human rights abuses, drug trafficking, and street crime. RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev reports.

United Nations, 10 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Anti-gun groups are expressing concern that a United Nations conference on small arms trafficking is too narrow in scope to be effective.

On the sidelines of the conference's first day of debate yesterday (9 July), a coalition of non-governmental organizations sought to show that member states had substantially weakened a draft action plan before the conference even opened.

An arms control expert with Human Rights Watch, Joost Hiltermann, appealed at a news conference for broader interpretation of the small arms trade and wider implementation of measures to control it. He said NGOs must challenge many states' definition of what constitutes "illicit." When states use the term, Hiltermann said, they tend to mean "in violation" of civil and criminal laws. He added:

"They rarely if ever mean 'in violation' of our obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law."

Hiltermann's view was echoed at the news conference by representatives of other non-governmental organizations, including the U.S. charity Fund for Peace, the Brazilian violence-prevention organization Viva Rio, and London-based Amnesty International. The representatives of these NGOs voiced their concern about attempts at the conference to take a strictly technical approach to what they describe as a political problem.

Technical solutions, the NGOs say, should play a part in the comprehensive approach to the problem, but there must also be explicit recognition that governments bear overall responsibility for the global trade in arms. Hiltermann referred to Human Rights Watch's report on how Ukrainian arms shipments to Sierra Leone in 1999 contributed to that country's civil war.

"Active collusion between irresponsible governments and unscrupulous international arms brokers serves to fuel humanitarian suffering."

Ukrainian officials have strongly denied they knowingly permitted arms to reach areas under UN-imposed embargo. They say Ukrainian government agencies have produced documentation showing their arms dealings in Africa were legitimate.

Human Rights Watch is a leading critic of some post-communist governments in Eastern and Central Europe for what it considers their important role in the international illicit arms trade. Two years ago, for example, the group released a special report accusing Bulgaria of participating heavily in the illegal arms trade.

According to the report, Kalashnikov assault rifles, mortars, anti-tank mines, ammunition, explosives, and other items were available for a price -- no matter who the buyers were or how they might use the deadly wares. The report indicated that Angola, Burundi, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Uganda, among others, all have received weapons from Bulgaria at the time. All have been involved in armed conflicts during which serious abuses of human rights have taken place. Since then, Bulgaria has been given some credit for instituting tougher controls on arms exports.

On the eve of the UN's arms-trade conference. Bulgarian diplomats in New York said that the country has been implementing strict measures for tightening control over its arms business. They said Bulgaria will firmly support the European Union's position on arms issues during the conference.

The scores of non-governmental organizations gathered in New York are planning to put pressure on governments to take a broader approach to the small arms proliferation problem. The director of the Fund for Peace, Loretta Bondi, says that the only effective ways to contain the illicit trade are through national legislation in individual countries or through an international convention.

"The only way to go after these traffickers is either for each country to adopt national legislation on this topic or for a convention to be negotiated. Obviously, these two parts are not mutually exclusive, but we do believe that a convention [will] furnish uniform standards to all countries in the world."

The director of the Brazilian anti-gun group Viva Rio is Rubem Cesar Fernandes. He told reporters that the illicit small arms trade in his country has worsened the trafficking of narcotics and street crime in large urban areas. Though not at war, he says, the country has been beset by problems related to small arms trafficking and needs a more effective UN action plan to help combat the problem.

"In the last two decades, we've seen a surge -- we call it 'an epidemic' -- of armed violence in the cities, mostly in the big cities. So the numbers you'll find of victims of firearms in Brazil are comparable to any country in a war. We're talking about some 300,000 killed by firearms in the last decade."

The United Nations says most of the estimated 500 million small arms in circulation worldwide are in the hands of police forces, armies, and lawful private owners. But UN officials say a large number of them end up in the hands of irregular forces, criminals, and terrorists.