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Campaigners Build Support for Arms Trade Treaty

Haider Rizvi

- From Nobel laureates to human rights activists to former military
commanders, calls are on the rise for the international community to
stand up against those who are making billions of dollars by selling
illicit arms around the world.

"It is time to end the slaughter," said Desmond Tutu,
the Noble Peace Prize winning archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, in
a statement urging the 192-member UN General Assembly to adopt the
proposed Arms Trade Treaty.

Tutu's call comes at a time when
diplomats at the United Nations are preparing to vote in the next few
days on a resolution that would move forward the process to create an
arms control treaty. The process was launched by the General Assembly
in December 2006, and may be wrapped up as early as next year.

"People are watching, waiting, and holding you to account," Tutu said in a letter sent to the diplomatic missions
of all of the UN member states. "They are demanding [a treaty] with
human rights at its heart. It is down to each and every one of you to
see it done."

Tutu's appeal in support of the treaty is part of a worldwide campaign of an international coalition of human rights groups and aid organizations that see the illicit trade in small arms as the main cause of civilian casualties in armed conflicts.

Ahead of the General Assembly meeting, the coalition, known as the Control Arms Campaign, organized a series of public gatherings around the world and gathered 1 million signatures in support of the treaty.

In addition to ordinary citizens,
recently, the campaign has also involved several former military
leaders in raising the demand for the creation of an effective treaty
against the illegal trade in guns and other weapons.

"It is the illicit trade and
trafficking of arms which is causing all the problems and causing all
the casualties in the civilian population," said retired Brigadier
Mujahid Alam from Pakistan, who is serving the United Nations' peacekeeping mission in Congo.

Based on his work in the Darfur province of Sudan, Lt. Col. John Ochai from Nigeria echoed similar views.

"Countries which supply Chad and Sudan with arms should be made to act
according to the treaty. Currently it is easy to move arms around Chad and Darfur," he said in a statement.

Ochai, a former chief of operations of the African Union Mission in Sudan, said the United Nations
must enforce the existing embargo on Darfur by closely monitoring arms
transfers into Chad and Sudan, and held that an arms trade treaty
"would help that enforcement."

Studies show that at least a third of a million people are killed every year with conventional weapons,
many of which are used by human rights abusers due to the poorly
regulated international arms market. That's the equivalent of about
1,000 deaths each day.

According to the United Nations, small arms include assault rifles, pistols, sub-machine guns, light machine guns, mortars, portable anti-aircraft guns, grenade launchers, anti-tank missile and rocket systems, hand grenades, and anti-personnel landmines.

"This is a problem that has been
affecting the international community for a long time," said Josefina
Martinez Gramuglia, an Argentinean delegate to the United Nations.
"There is no regulation, internationally agreed, on the international
trade of conventional arms. Our national position is that this is going
to be really helpful to put some order into that international trade."

In recent years, a vast majority of
UN member states have expressed interest in creating the treaty to
tighten arms control, but the United States and some other major arms
manufacturers and suppliers have continued to say no.

The United States is estimated to have an over-35-percent share in the global market of light weapons.

This year, the United Nations held
several meetings on the treaty proposal, which were attended by a
number of government officials from dozens of member countries.
Observers say that discussions leading to the negotiation of the treaty
could continue into 2009.

The proposal to create such a treaty
was first adopted by the General Assembly in 2006 after more than 150
countries voted in its favor, 24 abstained, and one -- the United
States -- opposed.

At the time, U.S. officials reportedly complained that a treaty
could actually lower arms control standards, as negotiations would
inevitably bring the level of enforcement to a lowest common

But human rights campaigners and many other governments have more faith in the UN process.

"There are some states which are opposed to [this] treaty," said
Tutu. "They will seek to block, derail and delay any further progress.
They will seek to convince you this cannot work. They must not be
allowed to succeed; the human cost is too high."

Financial concerns could be at play too.

Security analyst Frida Berrigan notes that 90 percent of guns seized after shootings or police raids in Mexico
or at the border can be traced back to the United States, many of which
are purchased at gun shows or the 6,700 gun shops within a short drive
of the United States' 2,000-mile border with Mexico.

On an even larger scale, the United States government entered into over $34 billion in Foreign Military Sales agreements with other nations this year, and has sold to over 168 different countries and territories in the past three years, writes Berrigan in a column for the Foreign Policy in Focus think tank.

The United States and other major arms suppliers have long been
reluctant to give up any authority over their arms export decisions,
notes the nonprofit Arms Control Association.

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

Research shows that 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 the United Nations, are mostly carried
out by middlemen involved in the illicit brokering of small arms. Most
of them are operating in Angola, Cote d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Somalia, and Sudan.

But, as many independent experts have noted, these middlemen are able
to operate on such a large scale only because they have the tacit
support of certain powerful governments and arms manufacturers.

The Control Arms Campaign, which includes the human rights organization Amnesty International, the aid group Oxfam, and the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), seems hopeful about the outcome of the UN talks on the treaty.

"As we approach the crucial vote, momentum for a strong, legally
binding treaty is growing," said Amnesty's Brian Wood, noting that
nearly 100 governments have already expressed their support for the UN

Last week, over 2,000 parliamentarians from over 123 countries also
appealed to the UN General Assembly to vote in favor of the treaty.

"More and more people and governments are realizing how [this]
treaty could significantly reduce the huge daily death toll and help
avoid the human rights abuses, suffering, and grief inflicted on tens of thousands of families," Wood added.

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