UNITED NATIONS - United Nations member states voted Thursday to create an international treaty to curb the illicit trade in guns and other light weapons, despite strong opposition from the United States and other big powers.
On Thursday, a vast majority of delegates to the U.N. General Assembly's first committee endorsed the resolution calling for the establishment of a treaty to stop weapons transfers that fuel conflict, poverty and serious human rights violations.
The United States, the world's largest supplier of small arms, was the only country that opposed the resolution.
A Liberian rebel armed with an AK-47 assault rifle sits with a colleague in Monrovia, in a file photo. A U.N. General Assembly committee voted on Thursday to let work begin on a new treaty intended to strengthen arms embargoes and prevent human rights abuses by setting uniform global standards for arms deals. (Juda Ngwenya/Reuters)
As many as 139 countries voted in favor of the resolution while 24 abstained. The United States, the world's largest supplier of small arms, was the only country that opposed the resolution.
Other major arms-manufacturing nations that oppose the treaty but did not participate in the voting include Russia, China, India and Pakistan.
The vote came after three years of complex diplomatic negotiations and a worldwide campaign by civil society groups that involved more than one million people in 170 countries.
Civil society groups said they were extremely happy with the outcome of the vote.
"It's a great victory," Helen Hughes of the London-based Amnesty International told IPS. "We had governments in that room who finally listened to human rights campaigners."
Jeremy Hobbs, director of Oxfam International, described the treaty as an international commitment to "end the scandal of the unregulated arms trade".
Both Amnesty International and Oxfam had been at the forefront of lobbying efforts in support of the treaty. This week they were joined by 15 Nobel Peace Prize-winners in urging nations to vote for the resolution.
"No weapons should ever be transferred if they will be used for serious violations of human rights," they said in a letter to the delegates who are currently attending the General Assembly session.
Supporters of the resolution said they hoped that it would help close loopholes in laws that allow the flow of small arms to conflict zones across the world, and thus give rise to violations of human rights and undermine development.
In their letter, the Nobel Peace laureates said all international weapons transfers should be authorized by a recognised state and carried out in accordance with international law.
"No state should authorize international arms transfers that violate the specific obligations under international law," the letter said. It further recommended that governments submit national reports on arms transfers to an international registry.
The current volume of the global arms trade is estimated to be around 1.1 trillion dollars, an amount that is likely to increase further by the end of this year, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Independent experts who have worked closely with the United Nations on the issue of small arms proliferation estimate that in the past three years more than one million people have been killed as a result of the unchecked flow of guns and other small weapons.
"A thousand people die every day and many more harmed as a result of the proliferation and misuse of small arms," said Rebecca Peters, the director of the International Action Network on Small Arms.
"The world can no longer leave civilians to the mercy of gunrunners and arms brokers who are profiting every year," she added in a statement calling for a worldwide ban on the use and supply of illicit weapons.
Several emerging arms exporters, such as Brazil, Bulgaria and Ukraine, as well as many countries that have been devastated by armed violence, including Colombia, East Timor, Haiti, Liberia and Rwanda, voted in favor of the resolution.
Expressing her support for the resolution, Amnesty International's secretary-general Irene Khan described the vote as "an historic step to stop irresponsible and immoral arms transfers".
"It will prevent the death, rape and displacement of thousands of people," she said in a statement.
The Nobel laureates signing the letter included South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Titu, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, Costa Rican president Oscar Arias, Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi, top U.N. nuclear watchdog Mohamed El Baradei, and former Polish president and anti-communist labour leader Lech Walesa.
Activists said they were disappointed with the U.S. role in the negotiations and its eventual decision to reject the resolution.
"This is not a good foreign policy," said Amnesty International's Hughes, who acknowledged that the U.S. laws on weapons manufacturing and supply were "relatively stronger".
"Their 'no' vote shows that they are opposed to the need for effective international controls," Hughes said.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the United States accounted for 48 percent of total military spending worldwide in 2005.
The resolution, which was sponsored by Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan, Kenya and Britain, calls for the establishment of a group of experts to look at the feasibility, scope and parameters of the treaty, which must report back to the first committee by the fall of 2008.
© Copyright 2006 IPS - Inter Press Service