Last week, Pyongyang test-fired seven missiles in defiance of international opposition. The response has been justifiably high, but far less attention has been given to an equally dangerous threat to security around the world - the spread of small arms.
The UN small arms review conference, which ended last Friday, was aimed at advancing international efforts to control the small arms trade. Small arms may get less press attention than other weapons, but they are no less deadly. Kofi Annan has described them as weapons of mass destruction in slow motion, and with good reason: small arms kill more people every year than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki put together.
The small arms trade is not subject to a comprehensive global agreement. Instead, there is a patchwork of national export laws, which unscrupulous arms dealers can easily circumvent. As a result, small arms fall into the wrong hands every day. During the two-week conference most governments said that they supported an agreement to control sales, but instead of fighting to secure a deal that would protect the millions of people worldwide living in daily fear of armed violence, they stood by while the conference was scuppered. It collapsed without agreement after a small number of countries, most prominently the US, blocked key issues.
In the first week of the conference, a group of countries led by Kenya and Britain proposed a set of guidelines for small arms sales based on international human rights and humanitarian law. These principles would have prevented weapons from being sold if there was a risk they could be used to kill or terrorise innocent people. The proposal was not a radical one. Five years ago, governments met for the first time to address the problem of small arms violence and agreed they should regulate sales in line with their existing responsibilities under international law. This proposal merely elaborated what those responsibilities were under human rights and humanitarian law.
Because the conference agreement had to be approved by all 192 countries attending, any government was able to veto any part of it. Cuba, India, Iran, Israel and Pakistan all opposed global controls. And while the US had said at the beginning of the conference that it would consider controls, it objected to so many parts of the draft that it in effect blocked agreement of the entire document.
Even before the final collapse, a handful of states succeeded in blocking the crucial proposal for controls and in removing references to human rights and humanitarian law. They made it clear they saw small arms control solely as a national security issue.
The link between the uncontrolled small arms trade and human rights abuses could not be clearer on the ground. I have seen it myself many times - for example when I visited Rwanda just after the 1994 genocide. There, supplies of small arms allowed the Hutu militia to take an estimated 800,000 lives while the world stood by.
A resolution is likely to be put forward at the UN general assembly in October for governments to start negotiations on an international arms trade treaty, which could be based on states' existing responsibilities under human rights and humanitarian law. Several governments have indicated they want a resolution to start work on such a legally binding instrument. Governments must not let the setback of the review conference stop them winning the battle against the unregulated trade of small arms.
Mary Robinson, a former UN high commissioner for human rights, is president of Realising Rights: The Ethical Globalisation Initiative and honorary president of Oxfam International. Email to:
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006