U.N. Confab OKs Global Curb on Small Arms

By Ezell, Virginia Hart | National Defense, October 2001 | Go to article overview
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U.N. Confab OKs Global Curb on Small Arms


Ezell, Virginia Hart, National Defense


To address what many countries and non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, have called "the scourge of small arms," the United Nations--after nearly two years of planning--this summer convened a two-week conference on illicit trade in small arms and light weapons.

Conferees agreed to a final program of action including measures to prevent, combat and eradicate the illegal trade at national, regional and global levels through international cooperation and information sharing. They were unable, however, to reach a consensus on rules on private ownership or arms transfers to non-state actors.

In the opening session, one of the U.S. representatives to the conference-Under-secretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton--made it clear that the United States had serious reservations about a supranational organization dictating domestic laws to govern individual gun ownership. The United States, he said, also was concerned about the conundrum of dealing with regulations on trade with non-state actors, meaning terrorists, guerrillas and liberation movements.

The idea that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter makes trade with non-state actors, illicit or otherwise, a foreign-policy issue that individual countries need to decide based on national interests, according to U.S. policy experts. Representatives from African nations, such as Nigeria, preferred to retain provisions in the document that would restrict small-arms transfers to governments.

The Chinese delegation took exception to the idea proposed by Japan and the European Union that small arms should not be exported to nations guilty of human-rights abuses. To reach final consensus, the conferees agreed not to include these two issues in its final recommendations. Several delegates, in their final remarks, said they regretted that these issues could not be addressed because of the wishes of a single delegate.

A regular feature in recent years at some U.N. meetings, NGOs were allowed to have their say. it was reported that more than 170 NGOs were represented at the conference. One NGO representative suggested that a way to measure the success of the UN's new program would be the number of lives saved as a result of its implementation. A representative from the Arias Foundation said that controlling the illegal trade in small arms was a right-to-life issue. Members of Amnesty International and Oxfam were concerned about the possibilities of human-rights abuses if small arms were allowed to reach non-state actors.

The flip side of the issue is that non-state actors may be attempting to overthrow a non-democratic government that is guilty of human rights abuses, some conferees noted. If states are prevented from supporting non-state actors, that may not help improve human rights, but instead may help keep corrupt, undemocratic governments in power, these conferees warned. This, they said, could put organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in the unusual position of supporting an authoritarian government.

Also addressing the conference were spokesmen for pro-gun organizations. A representative from the U.S. National Rifle Association voiced concerns about several of the U.N.'s small-arms transfer initiatives as they affect domestic laws governing the individual's right to own firearms. The NRA I is one of the few activist groups in the international small-arms debate that has recognized NGO status at the United Nations.

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