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UN: NGOs Seek A Binding Treaty On Small Arms Brokers

  • Nikola Krastev

Non-governmental organizations were active throughout the two weeks of the UN's first conference on small arms controls, and they are vowing to continue to prod governments into action in the months ahead. One of the key areas requiring control, these groups say, is arms brokering, which is now largely unregulated around the world. RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev looks at the efforts to bring such controls into use.

United Nations, 23 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations conference on small arms trafficking fell short in its final action plan of calling for a treaty cracking down on illicit arms brokers. But the action plan does urge governments to enact laws making illegal brokering in arms a criminal offense.

Non-governmental organizations -- or NGOs -- active on the sidelines of the UN conference expressed dismay at its failure to reach even a political commitment on a convention on arms brokering. They vowed to use the momentum generated by the conference to push for stronger measures.

Representatives of the Fund for Peace, a U.S.-based group, sought to emphasize during the conference the central role played by arms brokers in fueling conflicts. The group said that transparency in brokering transactions must be at the heart of any binding convention.

Loretta Bondi, the Fund for Peace's advocacy director, told reporters at a news conference last week there is strong evidence the activities of illegal arms brokers contribute to the escalation of armed conflicts around the world.

"Arms brokers take full advantage of weak controls around the world and they relocate their activities accordingly. And they have done so consistently with fear of no retribution whatsoever."

One of the most notorious brokers in recent years has been Victor Bout, a former Soviet air force officer born in Tajikistan. Western intelligence officials say Bout has supplied guns in every major African conflict during the past five years, including shipments to rebel groups under UN embargo. The source of many of the weapons he helps transfer is Eastern Europe, a region with few rigorous laws on arms trafficking or brokering.

There are only 11 countries worldwide that strictly regulate arms brokers' activities. Among the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, Poland stands out for its strict laws regulating arms brokers. Mariusz Handzlyk heads the Department of Export Policy in the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He tells RFE/RL:

"This [Polish] law developed very modern solution[s] regarding, for example, control of brokerage. We have a certain solution in our law, which allows our state to control brokerage. The second thing is that we have also strict regulations related to marking and placing [of arms]."

Poland's regulations require arms brokers to apply for a license for every contract. Handzlyk says Polish authorities exercise control over the entire transit of the shipment to ensure it does not end up in the wrong hands. Poland's criminal code now provides for a maximum 10-year jail sentence and a fine of some 200,000 zloty ($50,000) for arms-trade violators.

But representatives of the Fund for Peace and the Public International Law Group -- which represents several NGOs -- say that even in nations where effective regulations on arms brokers exist, laws are barely enforced. Bondi says an international legal instrument would help bring immediate reforms to the small arms trade.

"A convention would be the optimal vehicle to get all countries on the same page in a timely fashion. We believe that a convention offers uniform standards that all countries can apply uniformly."

Both the Fund for Peace and the Public International Law Group expressed concern that the final documents of the conference did not take into account the urgency of the problem. Both groups are calling on states to start early negotiations on an international, binding instrument on arms brokering.

Jeremy Carver, head of the Public International Law Group, says it's important to make a distinction between illicit and lawful arms brokers.

"The key to unlocking that is to establish a process of differentiation between legal, legitimate dealers in arms, and illegitimate ones who are trafficking in human sorrow, pain, agony, and conflict."

A blueprint of a binding international convention drafted by the Fund for Peace sees as its cornerstone a system where all arms brokers would be registered -- and only registered brokers would be given licenses. It is also important, Carver says, to make sure that the convention is enforceable.

"The most obvious way in which one would translate a registration process is by making sure that the failure to register, or dealing in arms in some way without a license being obtained, is a criminal offense, or offense carrying administrative penalties."

Many of the NGOs represented at the UN conference in New York say that any convention must ensure that states, in accordance with their national procedures, declare invalid transactions involving transfers of arms without a license. They say the private sector can effectively ensure compliance with sensible regulations in arms dealing.

For example, Carver says, when transport agents, banks, insurance companies, and other groups involved in an illicit arms transfer begin to incur big financial losses due to their involvement, they will closely scrutinize each transaction.

"The main impact of that is [it] would have a real effect because the transactions become a great deal more expensive. When you eliminate [transport agents, banks, insurance companies, and other groups involved in illegal arms transfers] from the cycle of business activity in which illicit arms trade necessarily takes place, they [illegal brokers] will not get cheap finance, they will not get good insurance, they will not get good shipment rates, and it will become a great deal more expensive to traffic in arms. That has the impact which means that less arms will be trafficked."

Historically, arms brokers have been unregulated. Some civil society experts suggest that a reason for this is the periodic support governments may give insurgents in conflict zones. They say governments not wishing to become directly involved in arms transfers were able to use unregulated brokers. They also say that, traditionally, large shipments of contraband weapons have been controlled and facilitated by a relatively small handful of international brokers.