Negotiators at the United Nations have adopted the first global agreement on curbing illicit sales of small weapons but only after seeing most of its teeth removed by the United States.
Emotions were mixed at the weekend after a two-week conference that had been on the verge of collapse several times because of US recalcitrance. Washington was opposed to any provisions that seemed to threaten the right of American citizens to carry guns.
The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, none the less described the text that emerged as an "important first step", towards ending the illegal trafficking of small weapons, which, according to the UN, have killed 4 million people since 1990.
With about 500 million small arms in circulation in the world the UN had prepared for the small-arms conference for two years. The UN says that rebel-driven wars such as the conflict in Sierra Leone are fueled by the open flow of small arms.
The former French prime minister Michel Rocard argued that even in its diluted form, the pact was a breakthrough. Curbing small arms trade could become a global cause like banning landmines, he said.
The UN agreement, which is not legally binding on any of the UN's 189 member nations, calls on manufacturers to keep detailed records of their sales and mark their small weapons so that illegally traded guns can be traced. It was adopted by consensus.
The agreement also urges governments to introduce laws, regulations and administrative procedures to prevent the illicit trafficking in small arms and to make the illegal manufacture, possession, stockpiling and trade of small arms a criminal offense. It calls for surplus stocks to be destroyed, public awareness campaigns on the consequences of the trade, and international support for disarming combatants after conflicts.
The US announced at the outset that it would kill any agreement that implied any restriction on the right of people to carry weapons. It also refused to accept provisions that would have barred governments from selling small arms to "non-state actors", which really meant rebel groups.
Washington wants to remain free to supply arms to whichever group it chooses, for example in countries governed by undemocratic regimes.
The president of the conference, Camillo Reyes of Columbia, said. "I think we have a good start [to begin] eradicating the illicit trade of small arms and light weapons." He noted that the US had agreed to a follow-up conference on small arms in 2006, which it had previously opposed.
Frustration at Washington's tactics was felt most strongly among African governments, many of which have seen their countries torn apart by internal conflicts. "The United States should be ashamed of themselves," said Jean Du Preez, a South African delegate. "We are very disappointed."
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd