The UK is next week expected to push through the United Nations a resolution to open the way for a landmark arms trade treaty, in spite of opposition from the US, Russia and China.
Campaigners have been pressing for years for such a treaty. An attempt at the UN three years ago had to be abandoned because of the level of hostility and failure to win sufficient backing.
But a British government source said, as of yesterday, it had secured the support of 93 of the 192 countries in the general assembly: only 97 votes are needed for the resolution to be adopted. One of the campaign groups said a further four countries had since signed up and the final number was expected to be more than 100.
Britain's advocacy of the treaty contrasts with its position at separate arms talks in Geneva, where the government is opposing a ban on cluster bombs.
Although the UK is one of the world's top five arms producers, it has been working with campaigners at the UN partly because tightening regulations on the sale of conventional weapons is Labour policy.
Regulation of the trade is patchy, with huge variations in laws between countries.
The proposed resolution is to be put to a vote on Wednesday by John Duncan, the British ambassador to the arms talks in New York. It says: "The absence of common international standards on the import, export and transfer of conventional arms is a contributory factor to conflict, displacement of people, crime and terrorism."
The resolution sets out a timetable for the UN to establish a panel of experts to draw up detailed proposals for the creation of a legally binding treaty.
A further vote - on the finished treaty - will not take place until 2008.
Brian Wood, Amnesty International spokesman on arms control, said he welcomed the arms trade being put on the table at the UN. "But the scope and content of such a treaty is yet to be decided and the devil will be in the detail," he said yesterday.
Campaigners say the lack of proper regulation means legally manufactured weapons end up in countries subject to international arms bans, mainly in Africa and Asia.
The treaty would cover not only small arms but heavy weaponry, such as tanks, which are in the hands of warlords in countries such as Afghanistan.
Illegal arms traders can easily get round national laws because components for much of the weaponry are made in many different countries.
Discussion of the draft resolution began at the UN on October 2. Campaigners said the US, the world's largest weapons manufacturer, had told them it would vote against it. The British government describes Washington as "agnostic" on the issue. The Foreign Office says the US argument is not that it does not want scrutiny of its trade but that it has good export controls in place and does not see the added value of the treaty.
Other countries that have been trying to block it include Russia, China, India, Iran, Cuba, Egypt, Pakistan and Venezuela, campaigners said.
Britain is backed by countries as diverse as Argentina, Australia, Kenya and Ukraine.
© Copyright 2006 Guardian News and Media Limited 2006