United States Weakens Outcome of UN Small Arms and Light Weapons Conference

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News Analysis by Rachel Stohl

FROM JULY 9 to 21, the United Nations served as the battleground for the first global meeting on the illicit trade of small arms and light weapons. Countries came together in New York to develop an international action plan to deal with this issue, but the United States and an army of unlikely bedfellows did all they could to derail the conference's efforts. Although the meeting managed to produce a program of action, the plan that was formulated is inadequate to deal with the myriad problems caused by small arms, and many countries and observers left the conference disappointed.

The conference was the culmination of many years of UN small arms initiatives, which started with then-Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's 1995 "Agenda for Peace" and resulted in meetings of experts in 1997 and 1999. In line with the latter meeting's recommendations, the United Nations voted in December 1999 to hold the small arms conference, and preparatory meetings were held in February 2000 and this past January and March.

Many governments hoped that the conference would serve as the launching point for processes that would result in agreements on marking and tracing weapons, regulation of arms brokers, and strict export criteria for small arms. They also wanted the conference to address the humanitarian consequences of unregulated small arms proliferation and to establish a framework for action on small arms at the national, regional, and global levels.

But the United States' dramatic and controversial position at the conference quashed most of these hopes. John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, set the tone for U.S. participation with his July 9 opening statement, which other participants described as "undiplomatic" and "un-UN-like." In his remarks, Bolton laid out the U.S. position with stark clarity, emphasizing that the conference should tackle only the illicit transfer of military-style weapons and should not discuss firearms and non-military rifles-the very weapons that are responsible for the most death and devastation caused each year by small arms.

Bolton further outlined "redline" issues that Washington viewed as unacceptable for inclusion in the conference's program of action. These included restricting civilian ownership of weapons, limiting the legal trade and manufacture of small arms, restricting small arms sales to nongovernmental entities, committing to begin discussions on legally binding agreements, holding a mandatory review conference, and promoting international advocacy by nongovernmental and international organizations.

During the preparatory process, a significant number of countries had urged including many of these issues in the action program. With the majority of U.S. allies strongly supporting action on these items, the United States was isolated and forced to take the floor more often than it otherwise would have to voice its opposition. Bolton's speech went far beyond what had been previously enunciated by Washington (despite assertions to the contrary by many U.S. officials throughout the conference) and put the U.S. delegation on the defensive, forcing it to take a reactive, rather than proactive, position.

The U.S. stance was based on three underlying principles. First, Washington did not want the conference's recommendations to be more restrictive than those made by the UN experts' 1999 report or than the policies of the Clinton administration.

Second, the Bush team wanted to placate the U.S. gun lobby, which has close ties to the administration and used the conference as a major fundraising and mobilizing event. For example, the U.S. delegation adamantly argued against a proposal on creating norms and legal standards for civilian gun ownership even though the proposal was less restrictive than existing U.S. law. In fact, the U.S. delegation offered language explicitly recognizing the legitimate civilian uses of small arms. …