Informed by the harrowing lessons of World War II, the United Nations Charter was signed in San Francisco on June 26, 1945. Exactly 61 years later, the UN review conference on small arms will open on Monday in New York. This will be the first major conference on the UN program of action on the global menace of small and light weapons of combat.
In recent years, discussions on terror and safety have tended to concentrate on weapons of mass destruction. And yet there are other problems that are already causing havoc, which also demand urgent attention. It is important to appreciate why an effective system of the control of trade in small arms is so badly needed right now.
First, the use of small arms is constantly fed and heavily promoted in the world by the sellers, for there is much profit to be made there. While it is true that arms trading needs willing buyers in addition to eager sellers, the pushing of arms is no less a phenomenon today than the pushing of drugs.
Given the fact that arms buying tends to be concentrated in relatively few hands, typically governmental administrators or the military or paramilitary (including insurgents), swaying the purchasers is often relatively easy and well within the profitable reach of the merchants of death. The French economist Jean-Baptiste Say might have enunciated a rather doubtful general principle when he argued, 200 years ago, that "supply creates its own demand," but his maxim fits the arms trade alarmingly well.
Second, arms trading would not be hard to control if the international community were resolved to do so. Arms production tends to be concentrated regionally, and so is the export of arms. As it happens, the leaders of the world, in the shape of the Group of 8 countries, have been persistently responsible for more than 80 percent of global arms exports.
Furthermore, the states of the world seem to have already agreed in previous meetings that they would restrict arms transactions to what international law allows. Yet there is no current agreement between the states on standards for arms transfers. At the UN conference that starts Monday, states need to agree on global principles restraining arms transfers if there were a likelihood they would be used to commit genocide or identifiable crimes.
A comprehensive approach would have to address direct transactions, indirect transfers, brokering, transit and transshipment. The UN General Assembly can then move toward agreeing on an international Arms Trade Treaty.
Third, the conference could also bring out the fact that the terrible consequences of the use of small arms go well beyond the outrageous killing and maiming they cause. Small arms are vital ingredients of terrorism, civil war and generalized violence, which in turn lead to the disruption of social services, health care and basic education, and can also reduce the incentives for long-term investment and economic development. Many of the difficulties faced by Africa from the 1970s onward can be traced to this process.
The G-8 countries have not taken an active leadership role in curbing arms trade until recently, but there are some welcome signs of greater resolve right now. It is also important for non-G-8 countries to take more initiative on this.
My own country, India, has good reason to use whatever influence it has, especially with the growing recognition of its importance in the global world. This is not only because reduction of armed conflicts fits well into the global objectives that were championed by India when it struggled for independence and sought a global voice, but also because India itself suffers a great deal from the illicit movement of arms that feed local insurrections and terrorist acts.
Even though China is currently the seventh-largest exporter of arms in the world, it also has a stake in limiting the movement of arms into its own territory. The G-8 countries, too, have reasons of enlightened self-interest to do this (despite the money that these countries make from this terrible trade), given the growing threat of terrorism that affects these countries as well.
Countries across the world, despite their many variations, increasingly have a shared vulnerability. The time has come for the world as a whole to turn a page, through effective controls on the global arms trade.
Amartya Sen, who was awarded the 1998 Nobel Memorial Prize in economics, is a professor at Harvard University. He is an honorary adviser to Oxfam and author of many books including "Development as Freedom."
© Independent News and Media Limited 2006