UNITED NATIONS - Following the collapse of diplomatic talks at a recent world conference on small arms, many governments and international civil society groups who want to see a global crackdown on the multibillion-dollar illegal business in guns are now looking to the United Nations General Assembly for help.
Last Friday, negotiations at the two-week conference broke down at the last minute as the United States and a handful of other nations refused to endorse a document that proposed a wide range of international measures against the illegal trade in guns and other small weapons of various descriptions.
Though much less promising than what they had actually hoped for, proponents of the gun control efforts say the final draft of the Conference's outcome document was fully acceptable to a vast majority of governments, including the European Union and those from Latin America and Africa.
It is unacceptable for two weeks of talking to produce no outcome, particularly when 1,000 people are still dying at gun point every day.
|Rebecca Peters, International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA)
The review conference was held to assess progress made by the world community on implementation of the UN Program of Action, which was adopted by all member states, some five years ago. At a meeting held in 2001, they made commitments to collect and destroy illegal weapons, curb their trafficking, regulate the activities of brokers, and impose trade controls.
Since its adoption, the program has stimulated a wide range of initiatives at the national, regional, and international level, with more than 50 countries having strengthened their laws to control the illegal business in guns, according to UN officials, who, nevertheless, believe that still a lot more needs to be done.
"The problem remains grave," said Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, at the beginning of the conference. "Small arms are easy to buy, easy to use, easy to transport, and easy to conceal."
"Their continued proliferation exacerbates conflict, sparks refugee flows, undermines the rule of law and spawns cultures of violence," he added in a statement.
Currently, about 25 percent of the $4 billion annual trade in small arms is either illicit or not recorded as required by law, according to the Small Arms Survey, an independent research project at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland.
During the conference, while many countries agreed that practical actions against the illegal business in small arms required further cooperation on the global level, the United States delegation stressed the need for regional efforts and reasoned that there was no need for further review meetings at the international level.
"The U.S. views on the follow-up (to the conference) are very different," Sri Lankan ambassador Prasad Kariyawasam and president of the conference told OneWorld. "Their position was unique. It focused more on regional action."
Though the U.S. opposition proved fatally damaging for the conference, moves to agree on global controls on the small arms trade were also blocked by Cuba, Iran, Israel, India, and Pakistan, according to those who closely watched the negotiation process.
Their negative role has caused a lot of anger and resentment among those who represented civil society groups at the conference.
"The world has been held hostage by a tiny minority of countries," says Anna Macdonald of Oxfam International, an human rights and development group that is at the forefront of the global civil society campaign against the proliferation of illegal small weapons.
Last year, small arms alone were responsible for the deaths of over half a million people--10,000 per week--according to UN officials.
Oxfam researchers estimate that during the conference held in New York from June 26 to July 7, at least 12,000 might have been killed by small arms. Macdonald thinks that by failing to reach a consensus governments have "betrayed" thousands of people who are vulnerable to gun-related violence.
Rebecca Peters of the London-based International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), a coalition of various groups campaigning against the spread of illegal small arms, agrees.
"It is unacceptable," she says, "for two weeks of talking to produce no outcome, particularly when 1,000 people are still dying at gun point every day."
Though disappointed with the outcome of the conference, Peters and her like-minded colleagues working with other advocacy groups think that no international efforts could succeed unless governments agree to impose an international ban on the illegal sale and transfer of small weapons.
"The world desperately needs a tough and well-enforced arms trade treaty to stop the present flow of weaponry to serious abusers of human rights," said Amnesty International's research manager for the arms trade.
Like other arms control campaigners, Amnesty International hopes that the 191-member UN General Assembly will take the gun trade issue seriously during its coming session due to start in September.
Disappointed with the outcome of the conference, many diplomats said last week they intended to support a resolution in the First Committee of the General Assembly calling for negotiations on a legally binding global arms control treaty.
The move is likely to succeed because, unlike international conferences, the General Assembly decides controversial issues on the basis of a majority vote, which the opponents of the proposed treaty certainly do not enjoy.
The proposed outcome document has already been sent to the First Committee for its consideration.
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