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UN: Small Arms Conference Commits To Seeking Trafficking Controls

  • Robert McMahon

The United Nations has completed its first global conference on small arms trafficking with an action plan that urges states to establish laws to regulate the small arms trade. The agreement falls far short of what some conference organizers and an array of non-governmental activists had hoped for, but participants see it as an important first step in recognizing and acting on an area of arms control that has so far been neglected. RFE/RL's UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports on the conference's conclusion.

United Nations, 23 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- United Nations member states have reached agreement on a broad list of recommendations for controlling the illicit trade in small arms, believed to be the weapons that have fueled most of the world's regional wars during the past 10 years.

After marathon talks, an action plan agreed on 21 July calls on governments to require manufacturers to mark weapons and record arms sales so that illegally trafficked weapons can be traced. The plan urges governments to enact legislation making the illegal manufacture, possession, stockpiling, and trade of small arms a criminal offense, a clause aimed at regulating brokers. The document also calls on states to destroy surplus stocks of small arms.

The approved action plan was weaker than a draft that had proposed international treaties to restrict illicit arms brokering, and a global system of small arms marking at the time of manufacture.

But U.S. representatives objected to any legally binding small arms pact. They also insisted on removing language that would have called for a ban on selling arms to non-state actors, arguing that they wanted to maintain the right, for example, to help any groups battling a genocidal regime.

After the conference ended, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan released a statement urging states to recognize the importance of limiting the transfer of weapons to non-state groups. But Annan also echoed the feelings of a number of conference participants who said the action plan was an important first step in regulating a form of arms proliferation that has gone out of control.

The two-week session that ended 21 July marked the first time UN member states had come together to address small arms, although there are international conventions on chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. The proliferation of small arms has become a matter of growing concern. The UN says there are about 500 million small arms and light weapons in circulation and estimates that 46 of the 49 wars in the past decade were fueled primarily by small arms. UN and civil society experts estimate that 500,000 people are killed each year by small arms and light weapons.

Governmental and non-governmental experts during the past two weeks cited the proliferation of arms as a chief cause of instability in the Balkans, Central Asia, and the Caucasus.

The United States, Russia, and China are three of the world's biggest makers of small arms, and they have been the main opponents of sweeping controls on the legal arms trade. A senior U.S. State Department official, John Bolton, and a top Russian Foreign Ministry official, Sergei Ordzhonikidze, told delegates during the first two days of the conference that the proposed action plan was too ambitious. Both said the conference should focus on how the illegal trade was destabilizing zones of conflict.

U.S. representatives were ultimately successful in getting the action plan's language to stress the role of individual governments in controlling illicit arms. They repeatedly cited the tough export laws enacted by the United States in 1996 as a potential model.

As negotiations drew to a close last week (19 July), the chief U.S. official present, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Lincoln Bloomfield, told reporters the conference should aim to encourage states to enact their own strong gun export laws.

"We can do a lot together to try to share our experience, be generous with our technical expertise and work with countries reaching out and asking for encouragement and help to put their own controls in place -- such that they may not be victims of instability and all of the humanitarian consequences that flow from that."

But supporters of broader UN action, including many EU nations, said it made more sense to have an international system of controls in place than to rely on the voluntary actions of governments to counter trafficking.

An arms expert at the Open Society Institute, Rebecca Peters, told reporters on 20 July that all countries, including the United States, should acknowledge the need for standard regulations on possession of small guns. Peters said legal and illegal gun supplies were closely linked.

"Virtually every illegal gun begins its life as a legal product. The illicit traffic is fed by the legal market. All countries need laws to prevent the legal manufacturers, sellers and buyers of guns from selling them either directly or indirectly to criminals and terrorists."

The Swiss government-sponsored Small Arms Survey says that of the 60 known legal arms-exporting countries, about one-third are from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Russia, with annual sales estimated to be worth as much as $150 million, is among the world's small group of major exporters. The Czech Republic ($59 million), Poland ($40 million), and Romania ($10 million) are in the next highest group of small arms exporters, according to the survey.

Studies by UN-commissioned experts and civil society monitors in the past five years have found a significant amount of small arms and light weapons from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union ending up in the hands of African rebels under UN sanctions.

Bulgaria, one of the chief suppliers of such weapons, has said its arms were being diverted after it had transferred them legitimately. But arms experts say Bulgaria has significantly cracked down on arms trafficking in the past 18 months, in no small part because of concern that its aspirations for joining the European Union were being jeopardized by its link to illicit arms.

It's not yet clear whether other countries tied to such weapons, such as Ukraine and Romania, have committed to following Bulgaria's example of tougher controls.

Among the provisions of the UN conference's action plan, member states agreed that a follow-up conference should be held by 2006 at the latest, to help maintain momentum on small arms controls.

Most of the former communist countries in transition have signed the recent UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, which contains a legally binding provision halting the criminal spread of firearms. But it's not clear if, or when, that effort will be linked with the new action plan on small arms trafficking. UN member states sought to keep the distinction between the legally binding firearms protocol and the politically binding small arms declaration.

The desire to keep apart these efforts at crime control and arms control meant that a key international agency, the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, had a muted role at the small arms conference during the last two weeks. One official at the Vienna-based office, Andrea Treso, told our correspondent last week that it was a bit odd for her agency to be sidelined during the session.

"We have no (official) nameplate, nothing there (that is, at the small arms conference). We are just observing and reporting to Vienna on general developments because, of course, it's kind of relevant to us but it was a request by our member states to keep a low profile at this conference."

The firearms protocol enters into force as soon as 40 states have ratified the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. The protocol requires states to control what individuals do with firearms, but it does not attempt to control what the states themselves do with firearms.