Published on Tuesday, January 9, 2001 by the InterPress Service (

Global Campaign Launched To Battle Illicit Small Arms Trade

by Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS - A coalition of about 280 non- governmental organisations (NGOs) from 70 countries Monday urged governments to curb the global trafficking in small arms which is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians worldwide.

The International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), which launched its global campaign on the opening day of a two-week preparatory meeting here on the illicit trade in small arms, said about half a billion of these weapons are currently in circulation outside lawful control.

'Gun running sustains bloody combat and repression the world over, but the proliferation of small arms has been particularly devastating in Africa,'' says Conmany Wesseh, Director of the Centre for Democratic Empowerment in Liberia, a member of IANSA.

Professor Wendy Cukier of Canada's Coalition for Gun Control, points out that gun running contributes to the deaths of more than half a million people each year.

'For every death, many more are injured and traumatised. The death rates in many countries at peace are as high as those at war,'' she adds.

Moreover, unlike illicit drugs, which are generally illegal throughout their trafficking life, virtually all illicit arms begin as legal weapons - whether in the hands of state armies, police or civilians, she argues.

In July 2001 the United Nations will hold a major conference on the 'Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons'.

The preparatory meeting, which began Monday, is expected to discuss both substantive and procedural issues relating to the upcoming conference. The conference will approve a programme of action to help curb the flow of small arms and adopt political declaration setting out commitments by the UN's 189 member states.

Perhaps the most sensitive issue before the conference will be the question of balancing the sovereign right of states to safeguard their national security with the pressing need to regulate the proliferation of small arms and light weapons.

The preparatory committee, comprising all 189 member states, is expected to establish several working groups to deal with the following: measures to prevent, combat and eliminate the illicit manufacture, acquisition, stockpiling and transfer of small arms; measures related to stockpile management, safe storage and destruction of illicit surplus small arms; and measures related to transparency and exchange of information.

Since 1997, there have been a number of global and regional initiatives to curb the illicit trade in small arms: a moratorium on the import, export and manufacture of small arms in West Africa initiated by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Inter-American Convention against the Illicit Manufacturing and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and Other Related Materials.

Additionally, the European Union has a Joint Action on Small Arms while the Council of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has an agreement on the Prevention and Combating of Illicit Trafficking in Small Arms and Related Crimes.

'Governments have talked about the need to stem the proliferation of small arms,'' says Joost Hiltermann, executive director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch. But so far, he says, it has been all talk - and no action.

Human Rights Watch is not only calling for binding codes on arms transfers, but also the establishment of transparency measures, including annual reporting of arms sales, and the creation of a UN Register for Small Arms.

The existing eight-year-old UN Arms Register, on the other hand, only records the import and export of fighter aircraft, combat helicopters, missiles, warships and heavy artillery - and excludes small arms.

A UN expert panel has identified ''small arms'' to 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 land mines.

Hilterman also points out that many of the weapons on the black market at some point were legally transferred by governments or with government approval. ''And governments have failed to rein in unscrupulous arms traffickers or enforce arms embargoes imposed on human rights abusers,'' he notes.

Michel Rocard, a former French prime minister and head of an Eminent Persons Group on small arms, says the preparatory process for the conference is at once promising as it is discouraging.

On the one hand, the gap between supplier and recipient States is manifesting itself with respect to scope and mandate for the conference, he adds.

At issue is whether or not to restrict the conference scope to illicit traffic, or to keep calls for transparency and accountability in licit production and transfer included.

'Unfortunately, parochial political, economic and security interests of a few (arms) supplier States are impeding, if not derailing the process,'' he warns.

In a report released last year, the Eminent Persons Group, said the majority of small arms producers are located in the First World while the majority of victims of small arms are in the Third World.

The Group includes several former and present political leaders including Alpha Oumar Konare of Mali, Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia and Narasimha Rao of India, as well as the former head of the Iraqi arms inspection team Rolf Ekeus and former World Bank chief Robert McNamara.

The Group pointed out that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, namely the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia, account for around 85 percent of the global arms trade.

At the same time, about 40 percent of the worldwide flow of small arms is attributed to illicit trafficking while the majority of illicit weapons originate in the licit trade.

Since 1990, says the report, small arms have been the primary choice of weaponry in 47 of the 49 civil conflicts.

Copyright 2001 IPS

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