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Generals, War Correspondents Promote Treaty on Small Arms

Haider Rizvi

United Nations  - Activists campaigning for tough international actions against illicit gunrunners made further gains this week when they found an unexpected ally in their lobbying efforts at the United Nations.

On Tuesday, ahead of the new round of UN talks on the small arms trade, a group of former UN military leaders publicly announced their support for a worldwide coalition of advocacy groups calling for the creation of a treaty to regulate the sale and purchase of small weapons.

"It is very significant that these generals are supporting the treaty," said Jeremy Hobbs, director of the humanitarian group Oxfam International, which is part of the Control Arms campaign.

Oxfam and other major rights advocacy groups, such as Amnesty International, have been campaigning in support of the proposed treaty for well over five years. They scored a major victory last year when the UN General Assembly gave its nod to the idea of an arms control treaty.

Despite fierce opposition from the United States and abstention from 24 others, over 150 countries voted for the resolution acknowledging the need to adopt a treaty. The passage of that resolution requires further diplomatic discourse by the first committee of the General Assembly, which is currently in session.

Many among those that refused to endorse the resolution are large-scale manufacturers and suppliers, including the United States, which is estimated to have an over 35-percent share in the global market of light weapons.

Driven by concerns over the continued loss of civilian lives as a result of arms proliferation, proponents of the proposed treaty say it would prevent small weapons transfers if they are used, or likely to be used, in violation of international human rights law.

Small arms, according to a UN experts panel, include assault rifles, pistols, submachine guns, light machine guns, mortars, portable antiaircraft guns, grenade launchers, antitank missile and rocket systems, hand grenades and antipersonnel landmines.

Arms control campaigners who have gathered more than one million signatures on a petition calling for the treaty formation said that in addition to former UN military leaders, some veteran war correspondents are also supporting their demand for the treaty.

"It's about people. It's about their struggle for life," said Janine di Giovanni, a well-known European war reporter who has covered various bloody conflicts around the world for over 20 years.

"These weapons destroy entire societies," she told reporters at a news conference organized by Oxfam at UN headquarters Tuesday.

According to the United Nations and Oxfam researchers, in 2005, small arms alone were responsible for the deaths of over half a million people --10,000 per week on average.

Like Giovanni, all the ex-generals who joined the arms control campaigners at the United Nations appeared to hold the unanimous view that strict and comprehensive international rules against the illegal gun business is a must to save innocent lives.

Major General Patrick Commaert, who has led UN forces in many countries, told reporters that while his job required disarming the warring parties, he knew the flow of weapons would continue.

"It was like you are mopping the floor, but the tap is on," said Commaert, who is fully supportive of those calling for the adoption of the treaty to control illegal arms supplies.

Like Commaert, Dr. B. S. Malik, former chief of staff of the Indian army's western command, also expressed his support for the treaty, but noted that a number of governments and industry leaders were creating hurdles to its adoption.

"This trade is very lucrative. The industry makes money out of peoples' difficulties," he told OneWorld, adding that many governments were more interested in their defense needs while the industry cared only about economic gains.

Currently, about 25 percent of the $4 billion annual trade in small arms is either illicit or not recorded as required by law, according to the Small Arms Survey, an independent research project at the Graduate Institute of International studies in Geneva, Switzerland.

Arms dealers in several African countries continue to violate embargoes -- whether imposed by the United Nations or the United States -- by using false documents or bogus certificates.

Such violations, according to UN researchers, are mostly carried out by an international network of middlemen involved in the illicit brokering of small arms. Most are operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Liberia, Somalia, Sudan, and Cote d'Ivoire.

Last month, a new UN study pointed out that by the middle of this year, about 40 countries had enacted national laws and procedures against arms brokering, which constitutes only about one fifth of the United Nations' membership.

In accordance with last year's resolution, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has received proposals on how to develop the treaty from at least 97 countries, say diplomats involved in negotiations.

Last year, Ban's predecessor Kofi Annan described the proliferation of small arms as a "grave" problem, noting that their spread fuels not only conflicts but also refugee flows, undermines the rule of law, and spawns a culture of violence.

Ban plans to form a group of government experts who will come up with their recommendations on the treaty formation in 2008. Activists hope that a treaty could be drafted by 2010, which would be a relatively short period of time for such a complex process.

© 2007 One

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