Amnesty International yesterday accused major gun-producing nations such as the United States, Russia and China of trying to undermine the first United Nations conference aimed at controlling small arms distribution.
Small arms are involved in more than 1,000 deaths each day, the UN told delegates in New York.
At least 550m small arms are in circulation around the world. They are the weapons of choice in 90% of conflicts and one of the biggest killers.
"Up to now, the main spoilers at the UN conference are the world's biggest small arms producers and some of their dependents and allies," Brian Wood, the coordinator of Amnesty International's action on small arms, said.
"These states allow transfers of small arms and munitions that expose many populations around the world to persistent human rights abuse," he said.
Aside from their use in conflicts, small arms are used to commit human rights abuses in 100 countries around the world, Amnesty said in a report released at the conference.
Women are raped by soldiers at gunpoint, peaceful protesters are arbitrarily arrested and detained by gun-wielding security forces, and police, soldiers and prison officials use guns to facilitate torture.
Amnesty called on the conference to ensure that all countries ban arms exports unless it can be reasonably demonstrated that they will not contribute to human rights violations, crimes against humanity or war crimes.
The conference, attended by 189 countries, opened yesterday with the unveiling of a giant sculpture crafted from more than 7,000 weapons once used in crimes, warfare and terrorism around the world.
It is due to end on July 20 and is expected to result in a non-binding action plan against trafficking in small arms, which include handguns and such heavier weapons as shoulder-launched anti-tank missiles.
"I think that perhaps the document is not going to be as strong as we would have liked, but it is a step in the right direction," the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, said. "It is a recognition by the international community that we need to do something about these weapons."
The legal small arms trade is worth $4bn-6bn (at least £2.8bn) a year and the illegal trade about $1bn, according to UN estimates.
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