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World: Humanitarian Groups Seek Arms Control Treaty For Light Weapons

  • Don Hill

Prague, 9 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Three prominent international humanitarian groups made public today a draft Arms Trade Treaty and called for the nations of the world to adopt it by 2006.

At the same time, the three groups -- Amnesty International, the British humanitarian organization Oxfam, and the International Action Network on Small Arms -- issued a massive report focused on the international trade in small arms and light weapons.

The report's authors, Brian Wood of Amnesty and Debbie Hillier of Oxfam, say such weapons -- which encompass everything from pistols to antitank missiles -- kill more than 500,000 people each year.

The report -- "Shattered Lives: The Case for Tough International Arms Control" -- quotes UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as saying that annual deaths from small arms dwarf the number of deaths from all other weapons systems. Annan says the carnage "in most years greatly exceeds the toll of the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki."

U.S. atomic bombing in 1945 of the two Japanese cities killed an estimated 115,000 people.

Wood tells RFE/RL that he believes the forces united against light weapons have a good chance of achieving their goal of the worldwide adoption of an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) by 2006.

"Well, as you know, Amnesty [International] works in 100 countries," he says. "We've got 70 national sections. Oxfam International is a pretty big movement, and we've got 500 other organizations all involved in a network called the International Action Network on Small Arms. And together, the three movements are a considerable influence on public opinion."

In the proposed ATT, the agencies say they hope to establish a uniform set of rules that would bind all or most nations of the world to control the arms trade, especially in personal firearms and other light weapons. A centerpiece would be outlawing any sales of weapons to destinations where they would likely contribute to human-rights abuses.

Today's report cites as a precedent the 1997 land-mines treaty that has resulted in a near freeze on open trading in land mines. Of course, land mines were a simpler target. They constituted a smaller market and induced a particular revulsion because they were so indiscriminate in their victims and so ugly in their effect.

Wood -- who is coordinator of arms control projects at Amnesty International's London headquarters -- says he believes that, with education, people will be equally offended by the pervasive effects of light weapons.

"Well, I think people are also revolted when they see children and women and civilians being shot and maimed and abused with other forms of arms," he says.

Wood says Amnesty International has been at work on an ATT since the 1990s, when the agency was instrumental in persuading the European Union to adopt a code of conduct on arms trading. But, he says, a political code of conduct lacks the impact of a full international treaty.

He says that in the years since, Amnesty International has consulted governments, UN delegates, and other nongovernmental organizations to develop the proposed treaty made public today.

Citing "Small Arms Survey 2002," developed by a Geneva research institute, "Shattered Lives" reports there are some 639 million small arms in the world today and that three-fifths of them are in private hands. The government-controlled armed forces of the world, it says, have by contrast less than two-fifths of them.

Further quoting Kofi Annan, the report says that in their presence and impact, "small arms indeed could well be described as weapons of mass destruction."

"The issue is how to control them, what is the best way to control them," Wood says. "And no one before has said, 'Look, all governments need the same set of rules.'"

Amnesty International is a worldwide agency concerned with human-rights abuses of all kinds. Oxfam's founders established the agency in the aftermath of World War II to deal with famine and the threat of famine. Its mission now is to seek solutions to what it calls "poverty and suffering" around the globe.

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