The aim is to review progress in ongoing efforts to stop weapons from being smuggled into conflict zones around the world, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir, and others.
“The 2006 review conference is first and foremost about eliminating illegal small arms in order to save more lives," said Prasad Kariyawasam, Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the UN, who is presiding over the conference. "It is a known fact that in the 1990s -- out of 49 major conflicts -- 47 were fought with small arms and light weapons and that most of the conflicts were exacerbated by the availability of illegal small arms, illegal trade in small arms.”
Working To Meet UN Goals
The UN conference will try to measure worldwide progress in meeting UN goals, set in 2001, for curtailing the illegal small-arms trade.
The illegal trade in small arms is estimated to be at least as big as legal, global arms sales.
Kariyawasam says the illegal trade serves multiple purposes that make it very hard to eradicate.
“We are aware that these illegal weapons fuel armed conflicts and support activities of groups involved in organized crime, trafficking in drugs, and the illegal exploitation of trade of precious minerals," he said.
From One Conflict To Another
Keith Krause, program director of the Small Arms Survey at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, says that often the weapons in one conflict have already been in use in another conflict elsewhere or belong to a national army whose military stockpiles are being downsized.
“Producers like Russia or the United States or other countries -- very little of their new production is ending up directly in problem areas right now," Krause says. "One exception might be China and Sudan; there’ve been some reports about [new Chinese weapons reaching Sudan], but by and large it's the re-circulation of existing stocks and weapons that are the greatest concern. And that has led to all sorts of measures to increase stockpile security and to destroy surplus weapons stocks, including in places such as the Ukraine.”
According to the UN 2006 Small Arms Survey, Ukraine holds more than 7 million military firearms. That is a ratio of 5.9 firearms to each member of its military.
Other countries in central and eastern Europe have equal or larger stockpiles of old weapons that they no longer need as they reduce and modernize their military forces.
The Czech Republic has a ratio of over 10 firearms to each member of its slimmed-down, NATO-member force.
And Albania has a ratio of 6.7 firearms to every soldier.
By comparison, the United States has a ratio of just 1.2 firearms to every soldier.
Krause says efforts are under way to destroy some of the vast over surplus of weapons that otherwise could fall into the hands of smugglers.
“In the case of Ukraine, they have approached the NATO Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council [EAPC], and under American leadership are starting a NATO- and EAPC-funded program to destroy, at the beginning, 1.5 million surplus military-style weapons," Krause said. "We know that the existing stockpile is much larger, but this is the first step toward what probably will be the largest weapons-destruction program ever [undertaken].”
Krause says there are also efforts to tighten stockpile-management procedures and create an efficient and traceable system of international small-arms brokering:
“In order to effectively tackle the illicit trade in small arms, you have to make sure that regulatory systems for legal arms, whether it’s legal production, or legal stockpiles or legal transfers," Krause said. "You have to make sure that all those regulatory systems are robust enough. For example, stockpile management of existing national holdings is an important part of good policy to combat illegal trafficking.”
The states attending the conference can take some encouragement from the fact that during the past five years since the UN Program for action against illegal small-arms trade was adopted some notable progress has been made.
More than 50 countries have strengthened their national legislation and more than 60 states have collected and destroyed large caches of illegal weaponry.
But the conference will seek to spur further progress by measuring the size of the job remaining. And that job will be far from over so long as continuing conflicts in many parts of the world assure that the demand for illegal weapons remains undiminished.
MORE: For more coverage of this topic -- including the role of the Russian-designed AK-47 in global conflicts -- from RFE/RL's Russian Service in Russian, click here.