UN Forges Program to Combat Illicit Trade in Small Arms

Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

UN Forges Program to Combat Illicit Trade in Small Arms


Since the early 1990s, a global network of arms control groups, humanitarian aid agencies, United Nations (UN) bodies, and concerned governments have been working to adopt new international controls on the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, as I discussed in my article, "Stemming the Lethal Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons" (Issues, Fall 1995). These efforts culminated in July 2001 with a two-week conference at UN headquarters in New York City, at the end of which delegates endorsed a "Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat, and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects" (available at www.un.org/Depts/dda/CAB/smallarms/).

Although not legally binding, the Programme of Action is intended to prod national governments into imposing tough controls on the import and export of small arms, so as to prevent their diversion into black market channels. Governments are also enjoined to require the marking of all weapons produced within their jurisdiction, thus facilitating the identification and tracing of arms that are recovered from illicit owners and to prosecute any of their citizens who are deemed responsible for the illegal import or export of firearms. At the global level, states are encouraged to share information with one another on the activities of black market dealers and to establish regional networks aimed at the eradication of illegal arms trafficking.

Adoption of the Programme of Action did not occur without rancor. Many states, especially those in Africa and Latin America, wanted the conference to adopt much tougher, binding measures. Some of these countries, joined by members of the European Union, also wanted to include a prohibition on the sale of small arms and light weapons to nonstate actors. Other states, including the United States and China, opposed broad injunctions of this sort, preferring instead to focus on the more narrow issue of black market trafficking. In the end, delegates bowed to the wishes of Washington and Beijing on specific provisions in order to preserve the basic structure of the draft document.

Although not as sweeping as many would have liked, the Programme of Action represents a significant turning point in international efforts to curb the flow of guns and ammunition into areas of conflict and instability.

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UN Forges Program to Combat Illicit Trade in Small Arms
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