The UN is a good place to collect paper. If you went to the Small Arms and Light Weapons Preparatory Review Conference at the United Nations last week as an NGO representative, you could have amassed an impressive pile of slickly designed reports and documents.
A pamphlet, "Africa: Making Progress in Tracking Illegal Arms," was blue and opened up like a map from a business card sized package. Put out by the Institute for Security Studies, it makes a strong case for the need to develop a mechanism for marking and tracking small arms and "improved regional and global cooperation" to combat "illicit arms proliferation."
Another document, "Targeting Ammunition," features a glossy full color photo of golden bullets against a blue woven fabric of indeterminate ethnic origin. Produced by the Center for International Cooperation and Security and project partners, the document outlines a plan to "provide comprehensive framing, profile and analysis of the ammunition issues" for the research and policy making communities.
IANSA- the International Network on Small Arms, which includes more than 700 civil society groups throughout the world - distributed a CD compilation of more than 1,000 documents on proliferation and misuse of small arms and light weapons. It comes in a cardboard sleeve with a lurid photo of child soldiers casually brandishing big guns.
Proliferation of Paper, Not Progress
This is just a sampling of the many documents available for United Nations delegates discussing the big problem of small arms. Despite the hard work, attractive literature and dedicated campaigning by the NGO community, the January 2006 meeting ended with a fizzle. It was intended to set the agenda for the second world summit on small arms in June 2006, called the Review Conference or REVCOM. In June, delegates will review the Program of Action (or "Programme" as they say at the UN) on small arms-- the world's first agreement on controlling the proliferation of guns, signed in 2001.
Delegates at the June 2006 conference will discuss global principles to control the arms trade and to prevent guns from being transferred to places where they could be used to violate human rights, fuel conflict or hinder development. The RevCom will also tackle the tricky issue of how to strengthen national firearm laws, because civilian guns constitute a major supply source for the illegal traffic.
IANSA says that the conference in June will be the only opportunity before 2012 for governments to make the commitments to protect people from gun violence.
What's at Stake?
"There is nothing small or light about small and light weapons" said Canadian delegate Earl Turcotte in his opening presentation. He is right. There are 639 million of these weapons in circulation and 8 million more are produced every year. More than a half-million people each year- or 10,000 each week- are killed by guns, and Turcotte notes that most of those people are civilians and at least a third of them are killed in countries at peace.
Sarah Margon, the director of Oxfam, is blunt about the need for strict controls on small arms sales, saying, "no one but a criminal would knowingly sell a gun to a murderer, yet governments can sell weapons to regimes with a history of human rights violators or to countries where weapons will go to war criminals." Oxfam, along with other larger humanitarian organizations and IANSA, are pushing for an International Arms Trade Treaty that would create legally binding arms controls and ensure that all governments control arms to the same basic international standards.
Progress is being made in organizing for an Arms Trade Treaty-so far 43 of the United Nations 191 members have stated their support for the idea. But overall, advancement towards curbing small arms has been slowed by the actions of a number of key states. For example, in July of 2005, a week-long small arms meeting ended with a voluntary agreement on tracking small arms that IANSA called "toothless and riddled with holes." The United States, Iran and Egypt opposed a legally binding treaty that covered ammunition as well as weapons.
U.S. Opposition: Simply Supply and Demand
The United States, the world's largest supplier of small arms and light weapons, takes the awkward position that if the demand for weapons dried up, the problem would go away. Manufacturers of guns, ammunition and semi-automatic weapons are just making a product, and should be allowed to continue doing so. They see the problem as resting with the demand- conflict countries should end their wars and stop buying weapons. So far, U.S. delegates have not dealt with the fact that gun manufacturers flood the market with too many weapons. In a further contradiction, U.S. diplomats have thwarted efforts from other countries to link issues of supply and demand. The U.S.'s anti-Arms Trade Treaty stance is strengthened by the active participation of the gun industry and the National Rifle Association in the UN meetings- on the same level as IANSA or Oxfam, as if these special interest groups were just any other Non-Governmental Organization, or NGO.
The NRA in the House
The decorous environment of the assembly rooms has become a battle royale for the Charlton Hestons of the world as the NRA and gun industry representatives set up camp at the UN to protect the right of Americans to "bear arms." In May 2005, the cover story in The Shooting Industry was entitled "The Future of Handguns," and started off with this exuberant line: "battered but better, that handgun market is back." While the article celebrated the renaissance of the handgun, it warned of the threat posed by "anti-gun zealots" at the United Nations "who do not intend to abandon their gun-banning cause."
"Standing Guard," a July 2004 American Rifleman article, notes approvingly that "of all the efforts by the Bush administration to support the Second Amendment, none have been more important than slamming the door on UN plans to impose international gun controls on American soil."
What their overheated rhetoric ignores is that there is nothing in the UN proposals about taking legally procured weapons away from licensed owners. But the presence of pro-gun "zealots" certainly spices up the staid UN environment.
Representatives of the countless NGOs that clustered at the UN for the last two weeks must now return home to prepare for the next round of talks. The gun industry and the NRA can break a champagne bottle on another successful rout. Between now and the next UN meeting on small arms, more than 50,000 people will be killed by guns around the world. This fact alone should be enough to move the countries of the world to more serious action. Will it?
Frida Berrigan is a Senior Research Associate at the World Policy Institute's Arms Trade Resource Center. Her most recent report, Weapons at War 2005, is online at http://www.worldpolicy.org/projects/arms/reports/wawjune2005.html Email to: firstname.lastname@example.org