The US president, George Bush, is about to spark a transatlantic row over a UN conference which opens today aiming to reduce the 500m Kalashnikovs and other small arms contributing to worldwide carnage.
Mr Bush has ordered the US delegation to the New York conference to block the main proposals because he fears inflaming the US gun lobby led by the National Rifle Association, one of the most powerful vested interests in the country.
Artist Wallis Kendal puts the finishing touches on his gun sculpture entitled 'The Art of Peacemaking' at United Nations headquarters Sunday, July 8, 2001. The exhibit will open Monday on the first day of the U.N. Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons. (AP Photo/Shawn Baldwin)
Mr Bush is sensitive to the NRA's insistence that international regulations on small arms could infringe the constitutional right in the US to bear arms. His move will anger the EU countries, including Britain, that support the attempt by UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, to bring order to the arms trade.
A UN document published for the conference blames small arms for 4m deaths in 46 conflicts since 1990 - about 90% of them civilians, and 80% of them women and children. The UN and the EU are pressing for:
A legally-binding UN resolution or treaty on the export of small arms
Proper regulation of arms sales to stem the flow of illegal weapons
Incentives to encourage destruction of the huge weapons stockpile
An internationally recognized system for marking weapons so they can be traced back.
But the conference looks set to end with empty statements of intent that will not be legally binding.
Failure will add to the deterioration in relations between the US and Europe, which have been strained since Mr Bush dumped the Kyoto measures to reduce carbon emissions and decided to press ahead with the proposed missile defense program.
The US opposition to the small arms plan took European and other diplomats by surprise and the optimism earlier this year about the conference has vanished.
Mr Annan, announcing the conference, described curbing the proliferation of small arms as "one of the key challenges in preventing conflict" in the 21st century".
A diplomat from one of the EU countries working on preparations for the summit said there had been a feeling only a few months ago that the world was ready to deal with the proliferation of small arms.
"It was a noble ambition to try to disarm or destroy these weapons. I think now it was too much to hope for," she said.
Mr Bush will be able to block the gun control plan with ease because there is opposition too from African and Latin American countries.
The European diplomat said some African countries were suspicious because the impetus was coming from Europe and they saw a smack of imperialism about it, and some Latin American countries were hesitant because of their internal security problems.
The former foreign secretary, Robin Cook, supported the conference and had planned to attend.
Campaigners against the arms trade see the decision of the present foreign secretary, Jack Straw, not to attend as a sign that little of importance is expected to be agreed. The international development secretary, Clare Short, will go in his place.
Mr Annan described small arms as "weapons of mass destruction": while diplomats had concentrated most of their efforts since the second world war on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, most deaths had been caused by small arms.
Publicly, neither diplomats nor the anti-arms campaign groups are prepared to write off the conference, fearful that such utterances could further undermine it.
But in private they are depressed. "I think it will do very little. I am pessimistic," said an anti-arms trade campaigner.
Ed Cairns, a policy adviser with Oxfam, one of the bodies consulted on the proposals, said: "There are only a few days left to prevent this from being a stunning disappointment which won't stop a single person being killed."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001