United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects

By Bolton, John R. | DISAM Journal, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects


Bolton, John R., DISAM Journal


[The following is a reprint of the plenary address to the United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons, Washington, DC, July 9, 2001]

The abstract goals and objectives of this conference are laudable. Attacking the global illicit trade in small arms and light weapons is an important initiative which the international community should, indeed must, address because of its wide ranging effects. This illicit trade can be used to exacerbate conflict, threaten civilian populations in regions of conflict, endanger the work of peacekeeping forces and humanitarian aid workers, and greatly complicate the hard work of economically and politically rebuilding war-torn societies. Alleviating these problems is in all of our interest.

Small arms and light weapons, in our understanding, are the strictly military arms, automatic rifles, machine guns, shoulder-fired missile and rocket systems, and light mortars that are contributing to continued violence and suffering in regions of conflict around the world. We separate these military arms from firearms such as hunting rifles and pistols, which are commonly owned and used by citizens in many countries. As U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has said, "Just as the First and Fourth Amendments secure individual rights of speech and security respectively, the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms." The United States believes that the responsible use of firearms is a legitimate aspect of national life. Like many countries, the United States has a cultural tradition of hunting and sport shooting. We, therefore, do not begin with the presumption that all small arms and light weapons are the same or that they are all problematic. It is the illicit trade in military smal l arms and light weapons that we are gathered here to address and that should properly concern us.

The United States goes to great lengths to ensure that small arms and light weapons transferred under our jurisdiction are done so with the utmost responsibility. The transfer of all military articles of U.S. origin are subject to extremely rigorous procedures under the U.S. Arms Export Control Act and International Traffic in Arms Regulations. All U.S. exports of defense articles and services, including small arms and light weapons, must be approved by the Department of State. Assurances must be given by the importing country that arms will be used in a manner consistent with our criteria for arms exports: they must not contribute to regional instability, arms races, terrorism, proliferation, or violations of human rights. Arms of U.S. origin cannot be retransferred without approval by the United States. To ensure that arms are delivered to legitimate end-users, our government rigorously monitors arms transfers, investigating suspicious activity and acting quickly to curtail exports to those recipients who do not meet our strict criteria for responsible use. In the past five years, the United States has conducted thousands of end-use checks, interdicted thousands of illicit arms shipments at U.S. ports of exit, and cut-off exports entirely to five countries due to their failure to properly manage U.S. origin defense articles.

All commercial exporters of arms in the United States must be registered as brokers and submit each transaction for government licensing approval. Our brokering law is comprehensive, extending over citizens and foreign nationals in the United States, and also U.S. citizens operating abroad. Believing that it is in our interest to stem the illicit trade in military arms, the United States has avidly promoted and supported such international activities as the Wassenaar Arrangement and the U.N. Register of Conventional Arms. Bilaterally, we offer our financial and technical assistance all over the world to mitigate the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. We have worked with countries to develop national legislation to regulate exports and imports of arms, and to better enforce their laws. …

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