UNITED NATIONS - Diplomats from the world's governments met throughout this week on agreements to cut the global illicit trade in small arms, but their work was curtailed in part by the near-boycott of the meetings by the United States.
The tone of the meetings underscored the political complexities of gaining full support for international small-arms agreements from the United States. The American view has balanced recognition of the dangers of illegal proliferation with the government's own arms-distribution practices and with the American gun lobby's resistance to the United Nations' proposals.
Since 2001, United Nations members have endorsed a broad but loosely defined initiative, called the program of action, for a collective effort against illegal arms circulation. The agreement in part encourages governments to tighten controls on manufacturing, marking, tracing, brokering, exporting and stockpiling small arms and to cooperate to restrict illicit flows, particularly to regions perennially in armed conflict. It addresses hundreds of millions of weapons, ranging from pistols to shoulder-fired rockets, that the United Nations says are in circulation worldwide.
The initiative has spotlighted the dire effects of the flood of small arms and led to expanded research into its often chilling consequences.
The World Health Organization noted this week that small-arms violence is so prevalent in Nyanga, South Africa, that a 15-year-old boy has a 1 in 20 chance of being shot dead before turning 35. In Antioquia, Colombia, the organization said, an 18-year-old man faces the same risk of death before turning 25.
The work to date, which the State Department says it supports, has helped spur small-arms control programs around the world, including disarmament efforts, reintegration centers for child soldiers and the creation in many countries of arms-brokering laws.
But initiatives toward a more comprehensive and binding agreement have been vehemently opposed by gun-owner organizations. The National Rifle Association, America's largest gun lobby, has labeled the process a thinly masked effort to undermine lawful civilian gun ownership and urged the United States to resist the measures.
The United Nations and advocates of gun control have said that such fears are unfounded, and that there is no effort to impose standards on nations with traditions of civilian ownership, or to restrict hunting. The programs, they said, apply largely to areas suffering from insurgencies or war.
"States remain free to have their own national legislation," said Daniel Prins, chief of the Conventional Arms Branch of the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. "This document does not try to regulate gun ownership in the whole world. This is an instrument that allows states to focus on regions in conflict and the weapons that illicitly get there."
The movement for greater controls has also raised worries in Washington that a call to curb transfers to "nonstate actors" could restrict governments that now distribute arms to rebel groups or work with armed private contractors. United States intelligence agencies and the Pentagon do both.
The United States' positions, and the less vocal resistance of other arms exporting countries, including China and Iran, deadlocked discussions in 2006, when the last full meetings on the subject were held here.
The agenda at the latest meetings, held Monday through Friday, was limited to issues for which broader support exists, including managing weapons and munitions stockpiles, restricting illegal brokering, and improving efforts to mark and trace weapons. A vote supporting such measures passed unanimously on Friday, with the support of 134 countries and 2 abstentions. Many nations were absent, including the United States.
The United States sent a delegation only on Thursday, to discuss an agreement for marking weapons with distinctive symbols or serial numbers, and for developing registries of government arms to help deter and detect illegal diversion.
The United States already has strict marking rules. It does not consider the issue controversial.
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A State Department spokesman, Drew Haldane, said the United States had attended that session because it agreed to in 2005, and it had skipped other meetings because it had hoped states would work on areas already agreed upon, rather than holding continued sessions.
"What is needed is not an indefinite series of such meetings in New York, but an increased emphasis on practical measures that states can take to improve implementation of their undertakings in the program of action, which, unfortunately, has been inadequate in some states," he said.
The American absence frustrated many attendees, who said the Americans courted support from the gun lobby at the expense of fighting an acute international problem. The absence, they said, was symbolically potent. "It's just very frustrating to see that empty chair," said Theodore Milonopoulos, co-founder of Vox Populi, an American youth organization that lobbies for gun control.
Prominent gun organizations applauded the limited American participation, and suggested that the United Nations effort was too broad. Thomas L. Mason, head of the American office of the World Forum on the Future of Sport Shooting Activities, an umbrella organization of owner groups, said objections reflected concerns that the agreement covers not only military small arms but pistols, rifles and shotguns, too.
He said that if the agreement were narrowed to automatic assault rifles and other infantry arms, such as rocket-propelled grenades, objections might fade. These weapons have been blamed for destabilizing large portions of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. "If they would only concern themselves with military arms - fully automatic and on up - that would go a long way," Mr. Mason said.
Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association, agreed that the scope should be narrowed. But he suggested that the association remained opposed to deliberations on philosophical grounds. "I believe, and the N.R.A. believes, that in all human society there is a right for good people to defend themselves from bad people, and a firearm is an essential tool of self-defense," he said by telephone.
The differing opinions underscored the wide range of positions, and sometimes contradictory activities, within the United States government. It has publicly supported efforts to stop illegal trafficking and underwritten programs to destroy surplus arms stockpiles and to help nations mark and trace firearms in government possession.
It also led efforts against Viktor Bout, a Russian accused of being one of the world's more active arms smugglers. (He was arrested in Thailand in March.)
But through programs to equip the Iraqi and Afghan security services and other allies, the United States has also been a prominent supplier of small arms in volatile regions. In doing so, it has at times bought and transported arms through the same gray networks and dealers that in Europe have been accused of illegal trafficking. It has also distributed many weapons without making a serialized inventory.
Several advocates for global controls, though disappointed by the United States' position, cautioned against pessimism or placing too much emphasis on the United States. The latest have partly revived deliberations.
They also noted that the United Nations meetings, while stalled on many points, have brought together like-minded governments and organizations, which have started national or regional programs to combat illicit trade.
"I look at where we were in 2001 and where we are now, and a huge amount of progress has been made," said Rebecca Peters, director of the International Action Network on Small Arms, a network of private organizations.
They also said other nations - including China, widely faulted for providing most of the weapons and ammunition for the epidemic killing in Sudan, and Iran, accused of exporting arms to terrorist organizations and insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan - have used the United States' more visible resistance as a cover for their own opposition.
Some national statements met exasperation, including one by China that it does not export arms to regions suffering from instability, and one by Pakistan that called its small-arms-control efforts "watertight." Its regions bordering Afghanistan have long been a haven for traffickers.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company